NOTE: I have just received a call to go on a national US television program for about 7 minutes this evening to discuss the Obama-Pope Francis meeting. The program is the O’Reilly Factor at 8 p.m. Eastern time, with Bill O’Reilly on the Fox network. So, unless there is some change, I should be on that program briefly this evening, if readers of this letter would like to tune in.
The White House has just issued the following text about the meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis.
It contains President Obama’s answers this afternoon in Rome to journalists’ question about the meeting.
It reveals that one focus was the Middle East, and another was immigration reform and a third the economic situation in Latin America, where the Pope is from.
The president says the discussion did not deal at length with the health care bill. I have italicized the paragraph below where Obama makes this statement.
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release March 27, 2014
Readout of the President’s Audience with His Holiness Pope Francis
Excerpts of the President’s remarks on his meeting with His Holiness Pope Francis are below, from a press conference:
Q Mr. President, in your meeting with His Holiness, Pope Francis, did he register any objections with you about the contraception coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act or your efforts to advance the rights of gays and lesbians in the United States that worry so many Catholics? And what were his concerns?
And on Russia, with reports of troops building on the Ukrainian border, by taking the military option off the table are you sending a signal to Vladimir Putin that other parts of Ukraine are his for the taking? And why not send multinational peacekeepers to the Ukrainian border as a deterrent?
And to you, Mr. Prime Minister, the President said yesterday that the U.S. would defend any NATO ally. Are you making that same commitment when it comes to Russia?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: In terms of the meeting with His Holiness, Pope Francis, we had a wide-ranging discussion. I would say that the largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his. One is the issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality.
And those of us as politicians have the task of trying to come up with policies to address issues, but His Holiness has the capacity to open people’s eyes and make sure they’re seeing that this is an issue. And he’s discussed in the past I think the dangers of indifference or cynicism when it comes to our ability to reach out to those less fortunate or those locked out of opportunity.
And then we spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world. There was some specific focus on the Middle East where His Holiness has a deep interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Lebanon, and the potential persecution of Christians. And I reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world. But we also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others.
I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical. It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets. And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me. And what’s I think created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.
In terms of domestic issues, the two issues that we touched on — other than the fact that I invited and urged him to come to the United States, telling him that people would be overjoyed to see him — was immigration reform. And as someone who came from Latin America, I think he is very mindful of the plight of so many immigrants who are wonderful people, working hard, making contribution, many of their children are U.S. citizens, and yet they still live in the shadows, in many cases have been deported and are separated from families. I described to him how I felt that there was still an opportunity for us to make this right and get a law passed.
And he actually did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act. In my meeting with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, we discussed briefly the issue of making sure that conscience and religious freedom was observed in the context of applying the law. And I explained to him that most religious organizations are entirely exempt. Religiously affiliated hospitals or universities or NGOs simply have to attest that they have a religious objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception although that employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it through the insurance company.
And I pledged to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops to make sure that we can strike the right balance, making sure that not only everybody has health care but families, and women in particular, are able to enjoy the kind of health care coverage that the AC offers, but that religious freedom is still observed.
Q Mr. President, I just want to follow up on Jim’s question on your meeting with the Pope today. Do you think some of the schisms that he referenced on social issues would stand in the way of you and Pope Francis collaborating or forming a strategic alliance to tackle income inequality?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: First of all, I just want to make clear — maybe it wasn’t clear from my answer to Jim — that we actually didn’t talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness. In fact, that really was not a topic of conversation. I think His Holiness and the Vatican have been clear about their position on a range of issues, some of them I differ with, most I heartily agree with. And I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue. His job is a little more elevated. We’re down on the ground dealing with the often profane, and he’s dealing with higher powers.
I do think that there is a potential convergence between what policymakers need to be thinking about and what he’s talking about. I think he is shining a spotlight on an area that’s going to be of increasing concern, and that is reduced opportunities for more and more people, particularly young people — who, by the way, have more and more access to seeing what’s out there and what’s possible because they have access to the Internet or they have access to other media, and they see the inequality and they see themselves being locked out in ways that weren’t true before. And that’s true internationally, not just within countries.
And so, for him to say that we need to think about this, we need to focus on this, we need to come up with policies that provide a good education for every child and good nutrition for every child, and decent shelter and opportunity and jobs — he is not going to get into details of it, but he reminds us of what our moral and ethical obligations are. It happens also to be good economics and good national security policy. Countries are more stable, they’re going to grow faster when everybody has a chance, not just when a few have a chance.
So he’s, hopefully, creating an environment in which those of us who care about this are able to talk about it more effectively. And we are in many ways following not just his lead but the teachings of Jesus Christ and other religions that care deeply about the least of these.
The United States Department of State has also released remarks about meetings held two months ago in the Vatican by US Secretary of State John Kerry. The summary was released on January 14.
Those meetings clear that a major focus of Vatican attention was Syria, and preparations for the Pope’s trip to the Holy Land in late May.
Remarks After Meeting With Secretary of State of the Holy See Pietro Parolin
Secretary of State
January 14, 2014
Well, let me just say that it was a privilege for me as the first Catholic Secretary of State in about 32 or 33 years to have the privilege of going to the Vatican today to talk with the new Secretary of State there about the broad array of issues that we face together across the world. And on a personal level, it was a thrill for me to be able to do that, as an altar boy, as a young kid, I would never have imagined that I would have been crossing the threshold of the Vatican to meet, as Secretary of State, with the Secretary of State of the Holy See.
And it was a very comprehensive, very, very interesting conversation. We touched on just about every major issue that we are both working on, that are issues of concern to all of us. First of all, we talked at great length about Syria, and I was particularly appreciative for the Archbishop’s raising this issue, and equally grateful for the Holy Father’s comments – the Pope’s comments yesterday regarding his support for the Geneva II process. We welcome that support. It is very important to have broad support, and I know that the Pope is particularly concerned about the massive numbers of displaced human beings and the violence that has taken over 130,000 lives.
In addition, the Secretary – Archbishop Parolin asked me for a solid briefing with respect to the Middle East peace process. Pope Francis will be going to Israel and the Palestinian territories and to Jordan in May, and so we agreed, after I gave a briefing, that we would stay in touch in order to keep him abreast of what we’re doing and then what progress there may be in the peace process. But obviously, there are issues of enormous concern to the Holy See, not just about peace, but also about the freedom of access for religious worship in Jerusalem for all religions and appropriate resolution with respect to Jerusalem that respects that going forward.
We also talked about Africa, the challenge of Sudan, where there are particular interests. There is a large Catholic population in South Sudan. President Kiir, himself, is Catholic, and I think that our efforts over the last days could be augmented by the efforts of the Holy See with respect to trying to end the violence and bring about a peaceful resolution. I think the Secretary of State of the Holy See was very interested in what he and they could do in order to try to assist in that process.
We talked also about Cuba and the need for respect for freedom of religion and freedom of – and respect for human rights. I raised the issue of Alan Gross and his captivity, and we hope very much that there might be able to be assistance with respect to that issue. And similarly, the Holy Father yesterday in his speech raised the responsibility that we all have for the climate, for responsibility for planet Earth, which is our common home, as he said. And we share the responsibilities with respect to that.
We talked about the common interest of Pope Francis and President Obama in addressing poverty and extreme poverty on a global basis. The United States of America is deeply involved in efforts in Africa and in other parts of the world – in Asia, South Central Asia – to address this poverty, as is the Catholic Church. And so we have a huge common interest in dealing with this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism or even the root cause of the disenfranchisement of millions of people on this planet.
So this was as comprehensive a conversation as I’ve had with any secretary of state or foreign minister in the course of my tenure, and I think, happily, we agreed on an enormous amount of things that we can cooperate on. That’s what’s important. We need to find all of the voices that are prepared to fight for anti-poverty or peace or for reconciliation among peoples, to bring religions together, to bring people together, and to make peace. I am very mindful of the fact that in his first Urbi et Orbi speech or address, the Holy Father did speak about the importance of peace and the importance of all people on Earth being peacemakers.
So I’m grateful for the conversation we had today. I know that the Holy Father is anticipating the visit of President Obama here, and the President is looking forward to coming here to meet with him. So much was agreed on as a mutual agenda this morning, and I’m particularly pleased to know that the Holy Father and the Secretary of State in the Holy See will continue to speak out about peace in the Middle East, continue to try to bring the parties together, continue to help address some of the most pressing concerns that are challenging failed states and failing states in too many parts of the world.
It is good to know that we will have this common enterprise together, and I was very grateful to the archbishop who I had the pleasure of congratulating on his elevation to cardinal, which will take place in February. So it was an all-in-all very helpful meeting, and I’m confident that the groundwork and agreement that we reached with respect to the peace process, as well as a number of other urgent priorities, will help us as we go forward in the next days and months.
Thank you very much.