Rome Correspondent Hilary White contributed to this report.
ROME, March 27, 2014 (LifeSiteNews.com) – In their first face-to-face meeting, Pope Francis reiterated the Catholic Church's concerns with President Barack Obama's policies on abortion, conscience rights, and freedom of religion.
A source familiar with the talks told LifeSiteNews that the Vatican press release on the meeting was “remarkably forthright” in emphasizing the fact that the pope raised these issues with the president.
According to the press release, the pope launched a discussion with the American president about the proper role of church and state, raising “questions of particular relevance for the [Catholic] Church in that country.” These included “the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life, and conscientious objection,” according to the Vatican.
The 52-minute-long meeting marked Obama's first audience with Pope Francis. The divide between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church has deepened since his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, with broiling arguments over the president's promotion of abortion-on-demand, same-sex “marriage,” and the HHS contraceptive/abortifacient mandate.
The USCCB has spoken out against the mandate that employers provide female employees with contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs with no co-pay. Pope Francis today restated their concerns that the ObamaCare policy forced Catholics to violate their deeply held religious beliefs.
The policy even impacts American nuns. The Little Sisters of the Poor do not automatically qualify for the Affordable Care Act's constricted religious exemption because they serve non-Catholic poor, and refuse to sign a waiver implying their approval of contraceptive use. “We believe the government's attempt to coerce us in this manner is wrong, and that it violates our religious liberty,” the Sisters said last year.
The Supreme Court has yet to rule on the mandate's constitutionality.
Pope Francis presented President Obama with a copy of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), which criticizes some public figures who attempt to marginalize the pro-life message by presenting it as “ideological, obscurantist, and conservative.”
“This defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right,” Pope Francis wrote. “It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development.”
The president said he may look at it. “You know, I actually will probably read this when I'm in the Oval Office,” Obama responded, “when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me down.”
The pope and President Obama pledged their mutual support to eradicating human trafficking around the world.
However, the Obama administration cut all federal grants to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' efforts to combat human trafficking in 2011, because the group refuses to refer pregnant women for abortions.
Some observers had expected this morning's meeting inside the Vatican to sidestep contentious moral issues in favor of greater economic intervention. Before their meeting, Obama told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Pope Francis gave “great moral authority” to his call to address income inequality between “those at the very top and the income of the typical family.”
“It isn't just an economic issue,” the president said. “It's a moral issue.”
However, it is not clear from the Vatican that the issue of economic redistribution was raised.
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“We hope the takeaway from today’s meeting is not a photo-op used to promote the President’s partisan domestic agenda,” Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser for The Catholic Association, said. “Today’s meeting comes at a time when the Obama administration is battling the Catholic Church in the U.S. over her right to be Catholic – fighting all the way to the Supreme Court to force people of faith, including nuns who care for the poor, to violate Church teaching or face massive government fines.”
International tensions were addressed, as both the pope and President Obama are deeply involved in the current tensions between Russia, Crimea, and Ukraine.
Vatican officials described the meeting as “cordial.” President Obama walked past the ceremonial Swiss Guard and shook Pope Francis' hand, bowing slightly.
For his part, Obama presented Pope Francis with a collection of seeds from the White House garden in a chest made from the first Catholic cathedral in the United States, after hearing that the pope enjoys gardening.
“His Holiness is probably the only person who has to put up with more protocol than me,” Obama joked, referring to the two men's respective meetings with foreign dignitaries and attendant security details.
Also present at the meeting were Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican's secretary for relations with states.
The previous day, Pope Francis met with another American delegation led by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, an outspoken critic of the HHS mandate and proponent of appropriate Christian engagement with the political sphere.