U.S. President Barack Obama and Pope Francis have met in the Vatican today for the first time amid what some Vatican-watchers and experienced hands in observing Catholic affairs in the United States are calling "tense relations" between the White House and the Catholic Church. V. Bradley Lewis, Professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America told Catholic News Agency that much of this tension revolves around the issue of the liberty of the Church. “There has been a great deal of acrimony over issues related to religious freedom. This is something new and quite serious, since it affects the ability of the Church to carry out its mission,” Lewis told CNA. The meeting between the Successor of Peter and the President comes at a time when many Catholic institutions have filed challenges to the Administration's mandate that services tied to religious groups such as universities, hospitals, hospices, shelters, and rest homes for the aged must provide insurance coverage that pays for contraception and abortion. Challenges to the mandate in the Catholic world have come from institutions as varied as the University of Notre Dame to the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Observers described today's meeting between Pope and President as cordial and friendly, and many noted that at nearly an hour long, the encounter was unusually lengthy, as meetings between Popes and heads of state or government don't normally take such a large bloc of time out of the Pontiff's day. In it's official statement, the Vatican was clear, albeit in its usual diplomatic language, that the two men likely had a frank, if warm, discussion on issues facing the Church in America, largely at the hands of the President's administration. "In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on 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," the Holy See's official statement on the meeting said. The Vatican did say that the Pope and Obama do share a "common commitment to the eradication of trafficking in human persons in the world." At the conclusion of the meeting, the Holy Father presented the President with a bound copy of his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).