President Obama Meets Pope Benedict at the Vatican

As the G-8 Summit wraps up, Obama gives tough love to African leaders.

July 10, 2009, 7:49 AM

L'AQUILA, Italy, July 10, 2009 -- President Obama today met with Pope Benedict XVI for the first time at the Vatican, where the two leaders discussed a number of common ground issues such as combating poverty worldwide and nuclear arms control.

In their 30-minute meeting, the two men also confronted issues like abortion and stem cell research, on which Obama's stances stood in stark contrast to the Vatican. The Vatican said the conversation also dealt with the Middle East peace process, immigration, intercultural and interfaith dialogue, the economic crisis and aid for Africa and Latin America.

Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough said Obama was "very touched by the visit" and though his opinions on some issues may differ from those of the pope, he wants to find "common ground."

When asked if the meeting is likely to change Obama's opinions on issues like abortion, McDonough responded: "The president, as he said in Notre Dame, has thought long and hard about these issues and he has his views on it. ... At the end of the day, it may just be that there's issues that they can't come to agreement on, but I think he believes that you can... disagree without being disagreeable."

White House officials said the president delivered a letter to the pope from Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer last year. Obama also asked Pope Benedict to pray for the ailing senator, who is undergoing treatment and remains absent from the Senate.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the president spoke with Kennedy on the phone from his plane for about 10 minutes to tell him he had delivered the letter to the pope.

Pope Benedict greeted Obama in the Sala dei Santi Pietor e Paolo, or the Room of Saints Peter and Paul, where the walls are adorned with paintings by Raphael.

The pope escorted the president into his private library, where they sat across from each other at a desk.

"Mr. President, welcome," the German-speaking pope said in English.

As the two sat face to face with dozens of photographer flashbulbs going off behind them, Obama said to the pope, "Your Holiness, I'm sure you're used to having your picture taken. I'm getting used to it."

The pope smiled and nodded and said, "You must be tired after all these discussions," referring to the week of meetings and summit sessions.

Obama presented the pope with a liturgical stole that from 1988 to 2007 was on the body of St. John Neumann in Philadelphia. Pope Benedict gave the president a mosaic of St. Peter's Square and Basilica, an autographed copy of his new encyclical, or papal letter, released Tuesday and bound in white leather. He also gave Obama the Pontical Medal and Rosaries, typically given to foreign dignitaries.

First lady Michelle Obama, wearing a short black veil and a black dress, joined the president after his private meeting with the pope. Several senior White House officials, including Gibbs and McDonough, received a blessing from Pope Benedict and posed for a picture with him and the Obamas.

First daughters Malia and Sasha also joined their parents at the Vatican to meet the pope.

White House officials said before the meeting that the president would treat it like a meeting with any head of state, but at the same time, he was well aware of the significance and influence the pope has around the world. They emphasized that despite the focus on the areas where the president and pope disagree -- such as their positions on gay rights, abortion and stem cell research -- they agree on other key issues, such as fighting poverty and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

"The president, in both his words and in his deeds, expresses many things that many Catholics recognize as fundamental to our teaching," McDonough said. "[T]he president often underscores that dignity of people is a driving goal in what we hope to accomplish in development policy, for example, and in foreign policy."

McDonough said the president has spoken about the "seamless garment of Catholic teaching," a phrase coined by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.

"That garment speaks to not just taking care of the poor and the needy but also investing in the kind of health care infrastructure that would ensure that people like those on the South Side of Chicago, who the president is very familiar with are oftentimes finding their health care not in publicly funded hospitals but in Catholic hospitals, for example," McDonough said.

John Allen, senior correspondent for National Catholic Reporter, said before the meeting there would be a tricky balancing act going on in the room. The pope likely shared his agreement with Obama on some issues, but does not want to be perceived as undercutting the critical position that the U.S. Catholic bishops have taken against Obama.

"They're going to try to walk a tight rope in this meeting and of course the jury is still about whether they are going to make it across or whether they are going to fall somewhere in the middle," Allen said. "President Obama in terms of domestic politics in the states has been a very controversial figure for the Catholic Church

"He is loved by a certain segment of the church that focuses on his peace and justice positions, but he is also seen in a very dim light by another segment of the catholic community in the states, the focus is on his positions on the life issues -- abortion, gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research and so on, so I think there is a great deal of drama on both sides of the water," Allen said.

Obama Gives Tough Love to African Leaders

Hours before his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa as president, President Obama delivered some tough love to African leaders, urging them to get their houses in order so they can better provide for their citizens.

In a meeting this morning with the leaders of Egypt, Algeria, Senegal, Nigeria, Libya and Ethiopia, Obama spoke about his personal connections to both Africa and poverty, and challenged the leaders to set prioritiesfor combating poverty and hunger. According to a top White House aide, "You could have heard a pin drop."

Obama recounted the exchange at a news conference at the conclusion of the G-8 summit.

"The point I was making was that my father traveled to the United States a mere 50 years ago, yet now I have family members who live in villages. They themselves are not going hungry, but they live in villages where hunger is real," Obama said. "And so this is something that I understand in very personal terms."

Obama noted that when his father, Barack Obama Sr., traveled to the United States from Kenya in 1959, the African nation had a higher per capita income and gross domestic product than South Korea.

"Today, obviously, South Korea is a highly developed and relatively wealthy country, and Kenya is still struggling with deep poverty. And the question I asked in the meeting was, 'Why is that?'" the president said.

Obama said that despite talk of the legacy of colonialism, he made the point to the African leaders that the government of South Korea was able to work the private sector and civil society to set up institutions for economic progress.

"There was no reason why many African countries could not do the same," he said.

Later today, Obama heads to Ghana, where he will hold up the West African nation as a model of good governance and successful democracy.

Modest Results From Summit

Obama leaves the three-day G-8 summit with modest tangible results.

There was no unanimity among the leaders of the Group of Eight industrialized nations about whether Iran should be further punished with tougher sanctions, and in the end, the group opted for a toughly worded statement.

Obama denied reports that he was disappointed that the leaders did not issue a stronger message on Iran's nuclear weapons programs or outline sanctions.

"This notion that we were trying to get sanctions or [that] this was a forum in which we could get sanctions is not accurate," he said. "What we wanted was exactly what we got, which is a statement of unity and strong condemnation about the appalling treatment of peaceful protestors post-election in Iran as well as some behavior that violates basic international norms."

Obama said a time frame was established, and there will be an evaluation of Iran's posture toward negotiating a halt to its nuclear weapons program at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh in September.

"The international community has said here's a door you can walk though which allows you to lessen tensions and more fully join the international community," the president said. "If Iran chooses not to walk though that door, then you have on record the G-8 to begin with, but I think potentially a lot of other countries that are going to say we need to take further steps."

G-8 leaders agreed to work toward a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 2050, with a global reduction for developed countries of 80 percent, hoping to limit the rise in global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But this was a nonbinding goal.

"We still have much work ahead on climate change. But these achievements are highly meaningful, and they will generate significant momentum as we head into the talks at Copenhagen and beyond," he said, referring to the United Nations conference on climate change at the end of the year.

Additional work was done on nuclear nonproliferation, the global health of the economy, and food aid and safety.

"After weeks of preparation, and three days of candid and spirited discussions, we've agreed to take significant measures to address some of the most pressing threats facing our environment, our global economy and our international security," Obama said. "We did not reach agreement on every issue."

Despite touting modest successes after three days of meetings, Obama allowed that he feels ambivalent toward these large summits and thinks that their shape will evolve over the next several years.

"The one thing I will be looking forward to is fewer summit meetings. Because as you said, I've only been in office six months now, and there're been a lot of these, and I think that there is a possibility of streamlining them and making them more effective," he said.

Obama is the host of the next major international summit -- the follow-up meeting on the global economic crisis with the G-20 nations in Pittsburgh in September.

He acknowledged that it is difficult to determine who to include in these global summits and that every nation wants a seat at an exclusive table.

"One point that I did make in the meeting is what I've noticed is that everybody wants the smallest possible group, smallest possible organization that includes them," he said. "So if they're the 21st largest nation in the world, then they want the G-21 -- and think it's highly unfair if they've been cut out."

Obama Finishes Trip in Ghana, First Trip to Sub-Saharan Africa as President

Ghana is the final stop on Obama's six-day trip. There, he will meet with newly elected President John Atta Mills and deliver a speech to members of parliament.

The president and first lady will visit a hospital in Accra that focuses on maternal and child health care and, weather permitting, are scheduled to take a helicopter to tour the Cape Coast Castle, an old slave fort where hundreds of thousands of Africans were held before being put on slave ships.

White House officials said the Ghana stop is meant to show that Africa is not a "separate sphere" but a key part of the administration's overall foreign policy. The White House chose Ghana over other African nations, including Kenya, where Obama's father was from, to showcase a successful African democracy. Ghana has held peaceful democratic elections, including Mills' election earlier this year.

"It's an admirable example of strong, democratic governance, vibrant civil society," said senior White House director for African affairs Michelle Gavin. "They've made tremendous development progress over the past decade, as well. There's much to admire and to sort of hold up something of a counter to what one often hears about Africa, sort of a litany of crises and conflict. It's certainly not the case in Ghana."

Ghanaians are eagerly awaiting Obama's visit, but there is some grumbling that the trip is too short and the president is not holding a large public event in Accra, as former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did on trips to Ghana.

"I do not believe that there is a way in which we could ever fulfill or assuage the desires of those in Ghana or on the continent on one stop with a public stop," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

There will be a departure ceremony at the airport in Accra for thousands of invited guests, but it is not open to the public.

ABC News' Jon Garcia and Phoebe Natanson contributed to this report.