WASHINGTON – 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.
The pope a stir in November when he decried trickle-down theories that assert that economic growth can result in greater justice and inclusiveness as unproven. "The excluded are still waiting," he wrote.
Paul Begala, a former top aide to President Bill Clinton, said Obama can only benefit from Francis' emphasis on economic disparities.
"It becomes very difficult for conservatives to attack President Obama for being divisive, when the world's greatest figure for unity is saying pretty much the same thing," Begala said.
Still, Francis' attention to poverty has also captured the attention of Republicans, among them Rep. Paul Ryan, a devout Catholic and Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012. Other Republicans, such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky have also staked out prominent anti-poverty positions.
The economic theme will be a centerpiece of Obama's State of the Union address next week. But his specific policies — a higher minimum wage, universal pre-school and ending loopholes for the wealthy — face difficulty in Congress in an election year.
"American Catholics as a whole don't tend to take specific policy guidance from the pope, whether it's Pope Benedict or Pope Francis," Green said. "But what the pope can do is to get them thinking about particular issues and thinking about them in distinctly Catholic ways. That kind of rethinking could very well be an advantage to President Obama."
The issue of health care has highlighted other disagreements between the administration and the Catholic Church. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been a high-profile critic of a provision in Obama's health care law that requires employers to provide insurance coverage that includes birth control.
Churches and other houses of worship are exempt from the control requirement, but affiliated institutions that serve the general public are not. That includes charitable organizations, universities and hospitals, and critics say that violates religious liberty. The issue is now before the Supreme Court.