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Pope raises right to life with Obama

| Thursday, March 27, 2014, 9:24 p.m.

VATICAN CITY — Face to face for the first time on Thursday, President Obama and Pope Francis focused publicly on their mutual respect and shared concern for the poor. But their lengthy private discussion highlighted the deep differences between the White House and the Catholic Church on abortion and birth control.

The gaps were evident in the differing accounts Obama and the Vatican gave of the meeting, with the president stressing their common ground on fighting inequality and poverty while Vatican officials emphasized the importance to the church of “rights to religious freedom,” a reference to a major disagreement over a provision in Obamacare.

The meeting inside the Vatican marked a symbolic high point of Obama's three-country visit to Europe. For a president whose approval ratings have slipped since winning re-election, it was an opportunity to link himself to the popular pope.

“Those of us as politicians have the task of trying to come up with policies to address issues,” Obama said after the meeting. “But His Holiness has the capacity to open people's eyes and make sure they're seeing that this is an issue.”

The president said the plight of the poor and marginalized was a central topic in their talks, along with Middle East peace, conflicts in Syria and the treatment of Christians around the world. Social issues, he said, were not discussed in detail.

However, the Vatican left out any reference to inequality issues in its description of the meeting. In a written statement, church officials instead said discussions among not only the pope and president, but also their top aides, centered on questions of particular relevance for American church leaders, making veiled references both to abortion and a contraception mandate in Obamacare.

But it was a personal meeting, too. Both leaders appeared nervous as they shook hands before entering the papal library.

“I'm a great admirer,” Obama said to the smiling pope. The two men then sat across from each other at a wooden desk for a private meeting that lasted 52 minutes, well beyond the half-hour that had been scheduled.

Obama seem buoyed by the meeting as they emerged, smiling broadly as the pope greeted a handful of Obama's senior advisers. Among them was Secretary of State John Kerry, who pronounced himself “a great admirer of everything you've been doing, as a Catholic, for the church.”

The president then presented the pope a seed chest with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden, in honor of the pope's announcement this year that he's opening the gardens of the papal summer residence to the public. The chest was custom-made of leather and reclaimed wood from the Baltimore Basilica.

The pope's gift to Obama included a copy of his papal mission statement decrying a global economic system that excludes the poor. Obama said he would read it during frustrating moments in the Oval Office.

Obama invited the pope to visit the United States. Speaking in Spanish, the pope replied, “Why not?”

Although the Vatican has not confirmed the trip, it is likely that Francis would go in 2015 for the church's World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

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