(RNS) The news that President Obama will meet with Pope Francis on March 27 brightened a snowy Tuesday morning for Catholics who see a broad overlap between the president’s agenda and the pontiff’s repeated denunciations of income inequality and “trickle down” economics, and 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:

Illustration of Pope Francis in a style inspired by Shepard Fairey. Original photo by Andrea Andrea Sabbadini/RNS,

Illustration of Pope Francis in a style inspired by Shepard Fairey. Original photo by Andrea Sabbadini/RNS. illustration created through obamapostermaker.com

This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Poverty and the wealth gap

Roman Catholics call it social justice. American politicians call it a campaign slogan. Whichever tagline you prefer, poverty has become a favorite new buzzword inside the Beltway, in part thanks 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?

Pope 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 will likely 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.

Peace in the Middle East

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with the Vatican Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, on Tuesday (Jan. 14). Photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with the Vatican secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, on Tuesday (Jan. 14). Photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Kerry’s talks with Parolin this month focused on peace in the Middle East, and Francis is also likely to spend a lot of time with the president discussing ways to halt the brutal civil war in Syria. Francis has made that a priority, and he will be meeting with Obama two months before Francis makes his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The Vatican and Washington were at odds a year ago when Obama was threatening a military strike against the Syrian regime and Francis rallied international protests against armed intervention. The military threats — or the papal prayer vigil — led Damascus to agree to give up its chemical arms, and now the pontiff and the president are on the same page in pushing for a peace settlement.

An invitation — and an RSVP?

Obama is sure to issue an invitation to Francis to visit the U.S., and specifically the White House. While Francis has been less inclined to be a globe-trotter in the mold of his predecessor, John Paul II (or even Benedict XVI), there’s a good chance Francis could visit the U.S. for the September 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

Before he resigned last year, Benedict said he would like to come for that event, and Francis could certainly work in a visit to the nation’s capital nearby and maybe to New York; Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the city’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, are already lobbying for a Big Apple papal visit.

Controversy non grata

One topic the two men surely won’t discuss will be the State Department’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See to new quarters inside the compound of the American Embassy to Italy.

News of the move late last year infuriated a number of Republicans, but the move was made for security reasons, and it actually upgraded the quality of the Vatican embassy while saving $1.4 million annually and putting the ambassador’s office a bit closer to the Vatican. Given Francis’ disregard for protocol, and his focus on spending money on the poor instead of on pomp, Obama could pledge to give the savings to charity and he’d have an instant fan.

Pope and change?

The pontiff could even give the president some political advice. “I would have made a good pope,” Richard Nixon is rumored to have mused. The tale is probably apocryphal, but it underscores how much presidents can get bogged down by the kinds of checks and balances pontiffs don’t have to face.

Yet as Obama confronts Republican resistance on Capitol Hill, Francis is also facing strong headwinds from church conservatives and from the infamously sclerotic papal bureaucracy, the Roman Curia. He’s had to use the power of his message — and his considerable popularity — as much as his authority to try to turn around the Vatican. “Obama would be wise to talk politics with Francis,” Notre Dame’s Candida Moss wrote in Politico. “He might be able to pick up a few pointers.”



    • Atheist Max,

      No the Pope is not an atheist. He is a man who if he met you would accept and love you as you are. The Pope would also say that God loves you and get connected with God as soon as you can. All of us have our own story and “baggage from life’s hurts and problems”. Yes Max, there are hypocrites among God-believing people who need to come clean with whatever they deal with. Try going online to www.biblegateway.com and read John 3:16 and/or Psalm 51 (or anything for that matter). By the way, the Old Testament has a lot of ancient history in it containing accounts of violence, war, adultery,
      etc., kind of what you find around today. However, despite all the stuff that people have done, God loves the world and wants people to be in relationship with him like a loving father with his children. If kids do stupid things, as all kids do sometimes, doesn’t the father still love his kids? The loving father would do something to correct and teach his kids, but will then let his kids know he still loves them. This is what God is all about. Try reading one of the Gospels. (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John) And, in your heart of hearts, ask God to reveal himself to you in a way that is understandable to you. I’m not saying God will do something ‘surreal’ but will reach you on a level that is personal to you. Give it a try as soon as possible.

    • Typical atheist wishful thinking, but a little too extreme. But you are permitted to dream a little especially since we have a president who is fulfilling some of yours.

  1. It will be like Judas looking at Jesus

    Obama hates Christianity his public office is a mountain of Anti Christian behaviour – It is on public record that Christians are now classed as Terrorists and a Threat to National Security – This happed on Obama’s watch and by his policies they are equal to 30 piecies of silver

      • Ron Trowbridge, undersheriff of Prowers County Colorado, attended a training session in La Junta, Colorado which was hosted by the Colorado State Patrol (CSP) and funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) He was giving the Training
        The DHS released the controversial publications, “Domestic Terrorism and Homegrown Violent Extremism Lexicon” and “Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Training Guidance and Best Practices.” Both documents provided the impetus for the type of training tools government agencies across the country are using
        The instructor cited Evangelical Christianity and Catholicism as examples of religious extremism—along with Al Qaeda and Hamas.
        Not only was it implied that Evangelical Christianity is as dangerous as a terrorist organization, but it was at the top of the list of threats. And, here is that list:
        Evangelical Christianity
        Muslim Brotherhood
        Ultra-Orthodox Jews
        Christian Identity
        Al Qaeda
        Abu Sayyam
        Ku Klux Klan
        Sri Ram Sene
        Kamane Movement / Kach
        Army of God
        Sunni Muslims
        Nation of Islam
        Jewish Defense League
        Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
        Instead of making obnoxious comments open your eyes and ears and try TO learn the truth about what is happen to Our Poor Nation but above all do the research

  2. The pope should not meet with Obama. This “meeting” is desired by Obama because of the 2014 midterm elections coming up in November. What better way is there for Obama to impress the multitudes of dumbed-down “catholics” in America that he has “common ground” with the pope of Rome! Francis will be used by this guy. A pope already luke warm on true Catholic dogma won’t say anything derogatory to this guy. JPII once said that his most difficult encounter with a world leader was with Bill Clinton, who paid little attention to the pope as they walked through the Sistine Chapel. The current “president” makes Clinton look like a boy scout.

  3. This pope is no fool. Obama has a death grip on issues regarding life and death. He can smile and lie to your face.

    It’s too bad as he had so many people fooled. Just remember…God always wins!

  4. Pope Francis is a man of God who took his name because it was St Francis of Assisi who journeyed to see the Muslim Sultan in an attempt to stop the Crusades. It is good that they meet, but Obama should be careful not to have this recorded as he only stands to lose political ground. Pope Francis is not about politics but about the best interests of all people. If the topic of abortion comes up, Obama better hide or have a change of heart because if the Pope challenges his own Vatican people, he will not stop at challenging a president who is not only anti-Christian but clearly has no consistent stand on when human life begins. However, if Obama had any gumption at all, he would be wise to be open to what a wise sage like Pope Francis has to say to him so he can take it back to this country and come clean with upholding
    Judeo-Christian values on what the United States was founded upon.

  5. I just hope President Obama asks him when he’s going to do something about all those child molesting priests, and Cardinals who cover it all up?

    Religion is poison!

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