ROME--10 Jul 2009--President Obama and his family came to the Vatican this afternoon, and the reaction here in Rome was something approaching euphoria. Of course the crowds outside St Peter's Square, held back by police, cheered him both on the way in and the way out. But the briefing in the Vatican Press Center afterward took as one of it's themes the sense of joy that many inside the Vatican. It sounded, with my limited Italian, as if most everyone was impressed with President Obama, with positive comments coming from both the curia and the household staff.
At the briefing for reporters following the meeting in the apostolic palace, the papal spokesman said, "President Obama told the pope of his commitment to reduce the number of abortions and of his respect for the positions of the Church."
The Vatican communique was very judicious in its use of language, beginning with its statement that the conversation was "cordial." I thought it was interesting they put "the defence and promotion of life" on par with "the right to abide by one's conscience." I think the authors must have appreciated the double meaning here, coming on the heels of an encyclical praising the legacy of Vatican II, which placed new emphasis on the primacy of conscience. The latter statement could have represented a vote in favor of conscience rights for healthcare providers, but I get the feeling that that is an issue very narrowly in the US news and wouldn't mean very much to most people around the world reading about this meeting.
A separate paragraph was devoted to immigration, perhaps in part because so many US bishops have taken up the mantle of this cause and it is a shared objective with the administration.
I thought it was interesting too that the Vatican statement made a point of emphasizing their agreement on Middle East peace, without pointing out any areas of disagreement. I was surprised that no specific mention was made of the environment, which made me think that the broader reference to "questions which are in the interests of all and which constitute a great challenge for the ffuture of every nation and for the true progress of peoples" was intended to include a whole range of the most compelling issues--war, environment, and the common ground on unintended pregnancy.
Overall, I think this meeting affirmed a mutual respect between these two leaders, a willingness to work together in a pragmatic way, and an appreciation that the differences between the Church and the Obama administration are dwarfed by the number of compelling issues for which they share a high level of concern.