When President Barack Obama meets Pope Francis in the Vatican in March, both men will speak a common economic language rooted in similar views about poverty and income inequality, giving prominence to an issue that the U.S. president wants to be a central theme of his second term.
In the complicated relationship between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church, the White House sees the popular new pontiff and his emphasis on the plight of the poor as a form of moral validation of the president's economic agenda. When Obama delivered a major address on the economy last month, he cited the growth of inequality across the developed world and made sure to note that "the pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length."
The White House and the Vatican announced Tuesday that Obama will meet with the pope on March 27 during a four-day European trip that includes a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands and a U.S.-European Union summit in Brussels. The meeting is the first between the president and Pope Francis.
Obama had an audience with the previous pope, Benedict XVI, in July 2009. At the time, the Vatican underscored the deep disagreement between them on abortion. Benedict gave the president a copy of a Vatican document on bioethics that asserted the church's opposition to using embryos for stem cell research, cloning and in-vitro fertilization. Obama supports stem cell research.
Francis has made it clear that Catholic positions on homosexuality, same-sex marriage and abortion haven't changed.
"But in his view those issues which create conflict need to be deemphasized a bit," said John C. Green, a political scientist who specializes in religion and politics at the University of Akron.