President Obama Meets Pope Benedict at the Vatican

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

ByABC News
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.