Despite all the hype about kindred spirits and a meeting of the minds, President Barack Obama's scheduled session with Pope Francis Thursday may be more of a photo op than the start of a beautiful friendship or a path-breaking political alliance.
That's because, while the two leaders have been talking separately about the need to reduce income inequality, help the poor and show compassion toward gay people, there appear to be unbridgeable gaps between them on matters of Catholic doctrine and central issues of faith. The pope remains opposed to abortion and contraception, while Obama favors a woman's access to both.
The president and the pope are to meet for the first time in the Vatican during Obama's current European trip. Unlike Obama, whose job approval rating among Americans is hovering at about 40 percent, the pope is quite popular. Fifty-five percent of Americans have a positive view of Francis, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.
Sixty percent of Catholics in the United States agree with the statement that "Pope Francis has renewed and strengthened my religious faith and commitment to the Catholic Church."
In 2009, Obama met then-Pope Benedict XVI, Francis's predecessor, for about a half hour. They discussed immigration, the global economy and the Mideast peace process. Benedict raised the issue of abortion and Obama promised to reduce the number of abortions as much as possible in the United States, according to media reports.
Francis has a history of showing independence from political leaders. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he disagreed publicly with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on abortion, contraception and gay marriage.
Some other areas of discussion between Francis and Obama could be immigration, the extent of deportations of people who entered the United States illegally, climate change, Russia's annexation of Crimea and the Mideast.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a potential presidential candidate in 2016, said a stumbling block will be the Obama administration's position that employers, including Catholics, must offer some form of contraception coverage to employees in their health plans. The Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit that challenges a section of the Affordable Care Act, Obama's main domestic initiative that mandates coverage for birth control. Some Catholic business owners say the section interferes with their religious freedom because their religion opposes contraception.
"He ought to explain to the pope why he is telling businesses in America they can't remain true to their faith and stay in business," Paul told Fox News. Paul added: "Most of us, whether you're Republican or Democrat, believe...in free exercise of your religion. But if they're telling you that your tax dollars have to go to something you find morally reprehensible, I think that's not free exercise of religion."