President Obama met with Pope Benedict XVI for the first time today in Rome, and while they offered little in the way of public comment before or after their sit-down, Vatican and U.S. sources said the two engaged in a wide-ranging discussion that touched on immigration policy and the Middle East and that saw Benedict emphasizing the church's conservative position on abortion.
Politically speaking, the pope and the president used the event to send separate messages from a global stage.
In one politically charged gesture, the pope handed Obama a Vatican booklet on bioethics that condemns embryonic stem cell research and abortion rights, both of which the president supports. "I'll have something to read on the plane," Obama, who flew to Ghana after the meeting, joked to the pope.
Obama used the forum to get his own messages out, stressing areas of common ground between his administration and the Roman Catholic Church. Even on the divisive issue of abortion, for instance, the pope's press secretary said Obama "reiterated his commitment to reducing the incidence of abortion" during the meeting.
The White House used the meeting to show the importance it places on the U.S.-Vatican relationship, with the private portion of the meeting between Obama and the pope running about twice as long as the scheduled 15 minutes. Obama then introduced his wife, Michelle, two daughters, and mother-in-law to the pope.
During a photo session following their meeting, Obama told the pope, "We look forward to a very strong relationship between our countries."
"I thank you for all your work," the pope responded. "I pray for you."
The Vatican, for its part, went out of its way to make the meeting happen, departing from its usual practice of hosting heads of state in the morning in order to accommodate Obama's schedule.
The pope gave Obama, in addition to the document on bioethics, an encyclical he issued this week dealing with the global economic crisis. Though the document reaffirmed the Vatican's opposition to abortion, it also showcased the church's more liberal positions, including support for labor unions, protecting the environment, and strengthening the United Nations.
"The encyclical ramped up the level of White House enthusiasm for this meeting because you can't read it without sensing that these two men are seeing economic questions the same way," says a Catholic adviser to the White House who spoke on background.
Though some U.S. Catholic bishops have been vocally critical of the Obama administration, the Vatican has taken a warmer tone. Pope Benedict phoned Obama last year to congratulate him on winning the election, as opposed to waiting until his inauguration, as is Vatican protocol.
While dozens of U.S. bishops criticized Obama's appearance at the University of Notre Dame in May, the official Vatican newspaper praised the president's commencement speech. "The search for a common ground: This seems to be the path chosen by the president . . . in facing the delicate question of abortion," the paper, L'Osservatore Romano, wrote in response to the address.