Opportunity, risk seen in Obama's meeting with pope, advisers say

Michelle Boorstein

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 20 2014 8:37 p.m. MDT

Pope Francis, shown in this file photo at the Vatican, and President Barack Obama will meet next week.

Gregorio Borgia, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Meetings between popes and presidents have often been seen as photo opportunities, but people who have advised President Barack Obama on faith issues say his get-together next week with Pope Francis will involve other high-level officials and likely concrete talks about how to boost the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and ease extreme poverty.

It's possible, the advisers say, that the U.S. embargo on Cuba and the condition of immigrants in the United States could also arise in the conversation between Obama and the church's first Latin American pope.

The White House announced in January that Obama would meet Francis during a European trip. Both the President and Michelle Obama will be there, as well as National Security adviser Susan Rice and possibly Secretary of State John Kerry.

While there's a clear appeal to being seen with the planet's most popular pastor, experts say the trip isn't without risks for the president. Francis is likely to raise concerns about war and poverty, areas where the Argentine Jesuit appears to favor more left-leaning solutions than does the current administration.

"Francis is capable of putting some direct leads in front of Obama [about focusing on the poor] and that will require something more than the obligatory response, 'It's nice to hear you,'" said one Democratic strategist who spoke on condition of not being named because the White House wants all information about the trip to run through their communications office. "My guess is the pope would like to see much more explicit work on behalf of the poor. Obama can point to what he's done. It is certainly not a full alignment."

Obama has made a point recently of aligning himself with Francis, with the White House saying the two have a "shared commitment to fighting . . . growing inequality." The upcoming meeting will be Francis' first chance to be more specific with Americans about how he feels their country impacts that inequality.

Generally, however, Vatican-watchers saw huge potential in the meeting between the president, who has focused often on poverty, and the pope, who publicly pined upon his election for "a church that is poor and for the poor."

"Some said that under [Pope John Paul II] and [President Ronald Reagan] there was a meeting of the minds, and it's potentially true again under Obama and Francis around the issues of social justice," said Miguel Diaz, a Catholic theologian who served as Obama's ambassador to the Vatican from 2009 until 2012. "This is the first African-American president and the first Latin-American pope, a man who has chosen the name of Francis [a saint who chose poverty over wealth] and a president who has a history of issues related to social justice like universal health care. I think there are a lot of convergences around these two world figures .. I think these two men want to meet each other."

The State Department and the ambassador's office referred questions about the trip to the White House, where officials said they would not be able to comment in time for this article.

Advisers to the White House on faith-based issues, including the Catholic Church, predict the two may discuss topics including the current U.S-led Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the pope's May visit to the Holy Land, the U.S. embargo on Cuba, Syria and the plight of religious minorities around the world.

Some prominent U.S. Catholic conservatives — including bishops — have spoken out strongly against the part of the Obama-created Affordable Care Act that mandates contraception coverage and have characterized Obama as an opponent of the church and of religious freedom. But most Vatican-watchers predicted the pope would not speak directly about the mandate to Obama when the two men meet alone, though it's possible the topic of domestic religious freedom could come up when other Vatican officials meet with U.S. leaders.

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