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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

The meeting between the two "should be a warm and personal, pastoral discussion," said one adviser to the administration on the Catholic Church, who asked not to be named so as not to be seen as speaking on the matter before White House officials.

Some advisers said the trip would be only positive for Obama for several reasons.

First is Francis' obvious global popularity. Second, appearing with a pope who spoke sharply against the U.S. even exploring military intervention in Syria and calls "trickle-down theories" unproven might make the president appear more moderate in comparison and help Obama with critics who consider him a radical leftist. It also could shore up his standing with U.S. Catholics, half of whom voted for the president (down from 53 percent in 2008).

Michael Sean Winters, who covers the church for the National Catholic Reporter, said the two men may find connection in having the same opponents.

"[Francis] knows that there is a conservative narrative that contains the pope and the president in a very negative light. So their criticisms of Obama are taken with a grain of salt," said Winters.

Others who have advised the White House said there may be discussion of immigration and that the meeting with the Argentine will generally bring attention to the fact that the U.S. Catholic Church is quickly turning Latino. The majority of American Catholics under 35 are Latino, and new research by a major Catholic fundraising umbrella group showed Latino Catholics are becoming more involved in institutional U.S. giving (compared with sending money home). U.S. bishops are scheduled to make an unusually prominent visit March 30 to the U.S.-Mexico border and celebrate Mass there, noting in announcing the trip that Francis' first travel as pope was to the Italian island of Lampedusa to remember African migrants who died crossing into Europe.

"The U.S.-Mexico border is our Lampedusa," the bishops said in the statement announcing their trip.

House Speaker John Boehner has urged fellow Republicans to work with Obama on immigration and the Ohio Catholic just last week initiated an invitation to Francis to speak in Congress if he comes to the United States next year.

The trip could pump energy into immigration reform, experts on the Vatican and Obama said. "The pope is highly conscious of the fact that millions of Hispanics are here without citizenship and most are Catholic," said the Democratic strategist who has advised the White House.

"The majority of young Catholics in this country are Latinos, and they will see their president, who they voted for in large numbers meet their Latin American pope," said Diaz. "This cannot but be a good day for Latino Catholics."

One unknown is how the two men will highlight extreme poverty without emphasizing their different views of how to ease it, and how the pope will speak about America's role.

Free markets have created more firmly set winners and losers, a "globalization of indifference . . . a culture of prosperity deadens us," Francis wrote in a major paper in late November arguing that wealth's purpose must be to help the poor. Similarly, as the United States contemplated military action in Syria, the pope called for a fast and said "Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake."

"Pope Francis is likely to be much less supportive of the U.S. role in the world as a global superpower than were Popes John Paul and Benedict, by virtue of [the two former popes'] backgrounds and experiences," said Stephen Schneck, head of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University and an adviser on Catholics to the 2012 Obama campaign. "And even more so in regards to the use of American military force abroad. I'm not suggesting there is any antipathy, but given his background the pope will be more wary about the U.S. role in the world."

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