By Hilary White, Rome Correspondent

ROME, July 10, 2009 ( – Pope Benedict gave US President Barack Obama a surprise gift of the Vatican bioethics document “Dignitatis Personae,” and discussed the ethics of abortion and embryo research in their first meeting in Rome this afternoon.

A Vatican statement has said that in their private discussion, the pope addressed issues of “the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience.”

At the customary exchange of gifts, Obama presented Pope Benedict with a relic – a stole that had been draped over the body of the US’s most popular Catholic saints, St. John Neumann, Bishop of Philadelphia from1852 to 1860. The pope also offered the president religious medals and rosaries, as well as a copy of his latest encyclical, signed this week, “Caritas in Veritate.”

A lengthy live feed video of the meeting showed a relaxed Obama greeting the pope warmly and sitting down immediately at his desk to a conversation that began with the recently concluded G-8 summit meeting in the earthquake-struck city of L’Aquila.

“Dignitatis Personae” (On the Dignity of Persons) is a 2008 instruction by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that gives the Catholic teaching on the ethics of embryonic research and reiterates Church opposition to contraception and abortion, mentioning new methods of birth control such as female condoms and the morning-after pill.

At the end of the meeting, Pope Benedict told the president, “A blessing on all your work and also for you.” The president responded, “Thank you very much. We look forward to a very strong relationship.”

According to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, “Obama told the pope of his commitment to reduce the number of abortions and of his attention and respect for the positions of the Catholic Church.”

Barack Obama told Pope Benedict XIV it was “a great honor” to meet him in what may be one of the US President’s most successful PR ventures in his presidency to date. The meeting in the pope’s private office lasted forty minutes and consisted of what White House spokesmen described as “frank but constructive” private discussion on world issues.

After eight years of friendly Vatican relations between former President George W. Bush, observers have eagerly awaited this meeting. Despite differences between the Bush administration and the Vatican on the war in Iraq, the former president’s relationship with the Catholic Church was strengthened by his initiatives in defence of human life.

With Obama’s zealous support for legal abortion, even to the point of having opposed legislation to protect children born alive after failed abortions, it is expected that tensions with the current administration will be higher.

The Vatican has made unusual accommodations for the visit, scheduling it in the late afternoon before Obama proceeds to a visit to Africa and allowing extensive live video coverage. The Vatican normally schedules such meetings for midday.