President Obama and the Roman Catholic Church disagree on many things. However, his visit to the Vatican this week is not likely to become a debate on issues like abortion, gay marriage and religious freedom from government mandates.
“This is not expected to be a finger-wagging session,” said Robert Mickens, a veteran Vatican watcher who writes for the U.K. based publication the Tablet.
Obama will meet Pope Francis in Vatican City on Thursday with an eye toward making progress in areas of shared interest, analysts say. He is also supposed to meet with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and new Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
This is not the first time that Obama visits the Vatican. He met with Pope Benedict XVI in July 2009, a visit Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi characterized as one marked by “great serenity and great cordiality.”
Vatican’s chief justice said this week that Obama’s policies are increasingly hostile toward Christians, experts say the agenda with Francis will include discussion about conflicts they largely agree on such as the Middle East, global poverty, immigration, economic inequality and also Ukraine.
“It is true that the policies of the president of the United States have become progressively more hostile toward Christian civilization. He appears to be a totally secularized man who aggressively promotes anti-life and anti-family policies,” Burke told the magazine.
Both are not expected to discuss about the prickly topic of exclusions from providing some health services by religious hospitals under Obama’s signature Affordable Health Care Act, though the topic could come up in planned talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart at the Vatican, Archbishop Pietro Parolin.
The Rev. Alistair Sear says both men will benefit from the visit. Obama may improve his standing among religious constituents, and Francis may improve his credentials as a statesman in addition to moral leader as he becomes drawn increasingly into global affairs.
“I think that from a pure PR perspective, Obama will probably benefit more that Francis, but remember that Obama remains very popular in Europe,” said Sear, an author and retired church historian.
“They also both have the experience of being at the center of a whirlwind of popularity: Francis in the last year and Obama after he was elected in 2008. They have that in common.”
Both can add prominence to their shared issues by the visit, says Federico Niglia, a professor of history and international relations at Rome’s LUISS University.
“They don’t have to coordinate the steps each will take in these areas,” he said. “But I think they can indicate strong support for the shared agenda in order to create momentum.”
Italian news reports based on information from U.S. and Vatican diplomats indicated that Obama is almost certain to invite Francis to visit the United States, perhaps to coincide with the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September 2015.
Italians were looking forward to the high-profile summit, with many saying they were following the news closely.
“How can you not be interested in a meeting between the two most recognizable people in the world?” asked Giancarlo di Francesco, 25, a waiter from Rome.
“I admire both leaders, and I hope they will each be able to give moral support to the other,” said Carlo Riva, 54, a municipal worker. “It’s a difficult time for the world, and we need serious leadership.”
Unlike his two predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, Francis’ English-language skills are limited, which means the two will speak with the aid of translators.