Pope talks abortion, immigration at first Obama meeting
VATICAN CITY - Agence France-Presse
Pope Francis meets President Barack Obama at the Vatican Thursday, March 27, 2014. AP PhotoPope Francis on Thursday defended the Catholic Church's anti-abortion stance and discussed immigration reform at a historic first meeting with President Barack Obama, whose health law has incensed Catholic leaders.
The Vatican said the two sides had discussed "the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection", foiling White House hopes of public Vatican support for Obama's anti-poverty agenda.
The Affordable Care Act has raised hackles and accusations of infringing religious freedoms because it requires private employers to provide health insurance including for certain forms of contraception.
Christian American employers have challenged the law in the Supreme Court and a ruling is expected in June, with the nine-member court appearing divided between liberal and conservative judges on the issue.
Controversy over "Obamacare" and the president's drop in popularity risk causing a Republican victory in this year's mid-term congressional elections, which would weaken the US leader for his remaining two years in power.
The Vatican said Francis and Obama also discussed immigration -- a divisive issue since many Catholic groups in the United States are protesting deportations from mainly Catholic Latino immigrant communities.
Obama told Francis he was a "great admirer" at the start of their talks at the Vatican, which political observers said could have been a bid to boost the US president's support at home among Catholic voters.
The closed-door talks between the first African-American US president and the first pope from Latin America lasted around 50 minutes -- slightly longer than papal meetings with other world leaders.
The White House said Obama had been hoping to speak to Francis about their "shared commitment to fighting growing inequality" as well as the Middle East peace process, the environment and immigration reform.
The two exchanged gifts afterwards, with the pope offering Obama a copy of his "apostolic exhortation" from last year in which he excoriated global capitalism and also reiterated his firm opposition to abortion.
"I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I'm deeply frustrated. I'm sure it will give me strength and calm me down," a smiling Obama said.
In the programmatic document, the pope denounced the "cult of money" and "an economy of exclusion and inequality" and it had prompted accusations from US conservative observers that he was a Marxist.
The meeting comes as a welcome rest-stop for Obama during a six-day European tour dominated by the crisis over Crimea, and the US leader will doubtless be hoping some of the pope's stardom will rub off on him.
During his visit to the Eternal City, Obama also met President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi -- at 39, the European Union's youngest leader -- and a fan of Obama's who has harnessed the power of social media in his meteoric political career.
He was due to tour the Colosseum later on Thursday.
In an interview with Italy's Corriere della Sera daily ahead of the meeting, Obama said Francis "has been an inspiration to people around the world, including me".
But he added: "It doesn't mean we agree on every issue".
Obama said earlier this month his calls for tax hikes on the rich and curbs on abuses by big banks had a strong moral grounding -- in an election-year swipe at Republicans that echoed the pope's rallying cry for action to reduce the gap between rich and poor.
Words of support from Francis could have certainly been a boost for Obama: a survey by Saint-Leo University found Francis was popular with 63 percent of Americans.
A poll last month by CBS News and the New York Times put Obama's approval rating at just 41 percent.
But Obama has been deeply at odds with US Catholic leaders over his support for gay marriage and the pontiff also spoke out strongly against a proposed military intervention by the US in Syria last year.
Vatican expert John Allen wrote in the Boston Globe ahead of the talks that there were "contrasts" and "sharp differences" between the US and the Vatican and said that a partnership "may not be on the cards".
Vatican experts say the relationship is not as cosy as it once was in the anti-Communist "Holy Alliance" between pope Jean Paul II and Ronald Reagan.