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The pope & the prez: What to look for in the Francis-Obama summit

First Published      Last Updated Jan 21 2014 05:24 pm

News that President Barack Obama will meet with Pope Francis on March 27 brightened a snowy Tuesday morning for Catholics who see a broad overlap between the U.S. leader's agenda and the pontiff's repeated denunciations of income inequality and "trickle down" economics, along with his support for the poor and migrants.

Other Catholics, especially conservatives already unsettled by Francis' new approach, hoped that the pope would use the encounter at the Vatican to wag a finger at Obama over the president's support for abortion rights and gay marriage.

So what will the two leaders talk about? What issues will they avoid? With Francis, anything is possible, but here are some initial ideas on how the summit could play out:

Poverty and the wealth gap

Roman Catholics call it social justice. American politicians call it a campaign slogan. Whichever tag line you prefer, poverty has become a favorite new buzzword inside the Beltway, thanks partly to Francis' popularity and his repeated desire to have "a poor church for the poor."

Expect Obama to highlight his common ground with Francis in this area. He's already done that twice: telling an interviewer in October that he was "hugely impressed" with the pope's "incredible empathy to the least of these," and quoting Francis last month in a speech on income inequality. In announcing the visit, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama "looks forward to discussing with Pope Francis their shared commitment to fighting poverty and growing inequality."

A truce in the culture war?

Francis will certainly bring up the church's opposition to abortion, a distinct contrast with Obama's strong support for abortion rights. And the pope may mention the U.S. bishops' long-running fight with the administration over the contraception-insurance mandate.

Yet social conservatives are always hoping for a tongue-lashing, and popes always disappoint them by not taking presidents to the Vatican woodshed. When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met his Vatican counterpart, Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin, earlier this month, Parolin touched on the birth-control issue but did not make it a focus of the 90-minute discussions, which were praised by the Vatican as "positive" and "constructive."

Whatever Francis says to the president, some already suspect that Obama will find a way to spin the talks away from abortion. As blogger Rocco Palmo tweeted when news of the meeting broke just ahead of the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion: "Rather curious that White House announces Francis-Obama meeting hours before March for Life events begin, no?"

Finding "common ground"

Obama is a Protestant who has often cited the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as an inspiration — a "common ground" model for an engaged and active community-based life that forges alliances where possible and uses dialogue to deal with the tensions of contrasting views.

Francis seems to take that approach as well, and he also appears to echo Bernardin's "consistent ethic of life" ideas, which see issues such as abortion and euthanasia not as stand-alone markers of Catholic identity but as integral parts of the church's wider, womb-to-tomb approach to life that encompasses the poor and immigrants.

A good example of Francis' "global" view was his speech this month to diplomats accredited to the Holy See. The pontiff cited a host of urgent issues, including immigration, the environment, poverty and hunger. Francis mentioned abortion (though not gay marriage), but he did so in the context of many other topics.

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