“I would say that the largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his,” Obama told reporters after the meeting. “One is the issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity and growing inequality.”
Obama said he and the pontiff discussed immigration reform and the possibility of a papal trip to the U.S. The president stressed there was also “some specific focus” during their 50 minute meeting on the Middle East – and specifically Syria, Lebanon and the fledgling peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“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,” said Obama. “It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars.”
Obama said he did not discuss the Affordable Care Act – and specifically exemptions for religious institutions during his meeting with Francis. The president noted to reporters he “briefly” discussed the issue with Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s chief diplomat.
A Vatican press release described Obama’s meeting with Francis as “cordial.” The Holy See noted “views were exchanged on some current international themes.”
“It was hoped that, in some areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved,” said the press release.
The Vatican noted Obama and Francis discussed “questions of particular relevance for the church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform.”
“Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated,” added the press release.
LGBT rights advocates earlier this week pressed Obama to discuss the Vatican’s opposition to marriage rights for gays and lesbians, a Ugandan law that imposes a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts and other issues.
“At a time when members of the LGBT community are being arrested, attacked, and ‘outed’ in situations that make them vulnerable to violence, there is a real urgency for U.S. leadership,” said Human Rights First President Elisa Massimino and Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, in a letter they wrote to Obama before he traveled to Europe earlier this week. “There is particular value for Pope Francis to raise this issue publicly in Uganda because his words will reverberate throughout Africa and worldwide at this time, and we hope he would raise these issues consistently.”
Obama on Wednesday referenced gay rights during a speech to European and NATO allies in Brussels against the backdrop of the escalating tensions between Ukraine and Russia.
“Instead of targeting our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we can use our laws to protect their rights,” said the president.
Dignity USA Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke told the Washington Blade on Friday she feels there is “probably a nice compatibility between” Obama and Francis on immigration and income inequality-related issues. She added she feels Secretary of State John Kerry and his Vatican counterpart likely discussed differences over the Affordable Care Act, LGBT rights and other topics.
“I certainly hope that the Obama administration continued to be clear about its position that LGBTQ justice issues are part of their human rights initiatives and that they’re really committed to global equality,” said Duddy-Burke.
LGBT Federation of Argentina President Esteban Paulón expressed disappointment that Obama did not specifically discuss LGBT-specific issues with the pope who was the archbishop of Buenos Aires before he succeeded Pope Benedict XVI last year.
“Even though we did not have high expectations, we believed that within the context of the meeting President Obama would have brought to the table his administration’s concern that it has expressed, and that we have shared, about the climate of hostilities towards lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people in many parts of the world,” Paulón told the Blade on Friday. “In many of those countries this persecution happens with the support, or at the very least with the complicity and silence, of the Catholic hierarchy.”
LGBT Catholics have welcomed Francis’ more moderate tone on marriage, homosexuality and other gay-specific issues since he succeeded Benedict. The church’s position on the aforementioned topics has not changed in spite of the Argentine-born pontiff’s more conciliatory tone.