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Francis & Obama meet, opening singularity that sucks oxygen out of U.S. media.

On my way home from work last night, I fired up my Twitter feed and found a series of tweets suggesting that today's meeting between pope and president might not go as well as some liberals had been predicting. They had read a piece by Thomas Reese, SJ, who worried that "controversy" could "cloud" the event. He'd seen a Vatican Radio report that concluded with a sloppy summary of disagreements between Obama and the U.S. bishops over the contraception mandate and gay marriage--rather than emphasizing areas of agreement, such as poverty. Reese pointed out that Vatican Radio is under the direction of Holy See spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ, and wondered whether the article in question might be part of a "coordinated media strategy coming out of the Vatican Secretariat of State."

When Tom talks about the Catholic Church, people listen--as well they should. Good luck finding a more knowledgable observer of the scene. But on this issue, I think Tom's final thought in that post is the one worth heeding: "Sometimes a story is just a story and has no more authority than the individual author." Vatican Radio is not micromanaged by the Holy See press shop. If it were, people might start thinking the pope was poised to adopt the agenda of Future Church.

Over the past week, it seems like everybody with an internet connection has published explainers and prognostications about the meeting. It's only natural. The first Latin American pope meets the first black president. Is Pope Francis the Barack Obama of the Vatican? Obama the Francis of Washington? Contraception mandate at the Supreme Court. Putin's border-crossings. Inequality. Poverty. War. It's news. But media coverage has run the gamut from useful to really not.

In the former category: Jason Horowitz reminded New York Times readers of Obama's past work with the Catholic Church. David Gibson smartly wondered whether the meeting could "reset" Obama's "frayed" relations with the U.S. bishops.

Somwhere in the middle was John Allen, who argued that such a reset "may not be in the cards," because the two world leaders disagree about abortion and contraception (as though liberals were expecting Francis and Obama to stride onto the balcony of St. Peter's to announce co-sponsored legislation).

And in the latter category: Noted expert on the Catholic Church Rand Paul advised the president to explain to the pope "why he is telling businesses in America they can’t remain true to their faith and stay in business." This morning, renowned scholar of Catholicism Reza Aslan weighed in at the BBC, explaining that the "founding philosophy of the Jesuits" was "the preferential option for the poor," that Jesus' message on poverty was "about literally replacing the poor with the rich, of them changing places, if you will" (I won't), that the pope "isn't even preaching truly what Jesus was preaching...that the rich and the poor should switch places." Aslan continued to regale listeners with his revolutionary hermeneutic of replacement: "The real power of this meeting comes from the fact that both men are interested in replacing values with politics." And on Tuesday Edward Morrissey tried to cool liberal jets by predicting that the Vatican would "confront" Obama on the contraception mandate and drone strikes.

So what really happened during this morning's fifty-two-minute meeting? Depends on what you read. The Washington Post bizarrely led by claiming Francis and Obama have "radically different politics." (On abortion? Yes. On economic inequality? No.) Over at the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus mistook that Vatican Radio piece for an official statement of the Holy See. 

The Associated Press ran a couple of scintillating ledes. First came this:

Sharp differences over abortion and birth control surfaced as President Barack Obama held his first meeting Thursday with Pope Francis, even as the president sought to emphasize common ground issues like economic inequality during a much-anticipated Vatican visit.

Politico got into the act too, claiming that Obama was " concerns over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate." Conservative outlets like ran with it, alleging that "the Holy See Press Office stunned Vatican watchers when it confirmed that freedom of religion stood front and center during discussions about domestic affairs while social justice issues seemingly took a back seat to the conversation." (Catholic Vote failed to mention that Obama didn't receive a document on bioethics from Pope Francis, as he did from Pope Benedict.)

That's not how Obama characterized the conversation. The president said in a press conference that the "bulk of the time was [spent] discussing...the poor...and growing inequality." He said that they also discussed peace, especially in the Middle East, and immigration reform, but that the pope "did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act" and religious freedom. Rather, that came up in Obama's subsequent meeting with Secretary of State Parolin. And if you look at the Vatican's own statement on the meeting, you won't find much contrast with the president's account:

During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved. 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. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.

Try not to cut yourself on those "sharp differences"--differences everyone knew about going into the meeting, and nobody expected would be resolved at its conclusion.

Not long after that original AP lede went over the wire, it was replaced with new copy:

President Barack Obama and the Vatican gave distinctly different accounts of the president's audience with Pope Francis on Thursday, with Obama stressing their common ground on poverty and inequality but Vatican officials emphasizing concerns over Obama's health care law, which mandates contraception coverage.

"Sharp differences" was transmogrified into "distinctly different accounts," so now it sounds like someone isn't being totally forthcoming about the meeting. (Politico suggested the same.) And where exactly is the AP seeing Rome's emphasis on Obamacare? We know it came up with Parolin. If that was the Vatican's primary concern, why didn't Francis handle the issue instead?

The problem is that the AP is comparing apples and oranges. So you read that Obama was "incredibly moved" and "honored" by meeting the pope, that the president "was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with [Francis] about the responsibilities that we all share to care for the least of these, the poor, the excluded," and that Obama "was extremely moved by [Francis's] insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests."

The AP then contrasts Obama's off-the-cuff comments with the Vatican's toneless news release:

The marked difference in emphasis introduced a perplexing element to the long-anticipated meeting, which the White House has looked forward to as way to validate Obama's economic policies.... In a report on Vatican Radio the day before the meeting, the Vatican had signaled that the divisive issues would indeed be on the agenda.

There's that Vatican Radio canard again. But no, there's nothing perplexing about the differences between a formal Vatican statement and a president's ad libbed remarks to the press. The Vatican's news release was never going to contain revealing language about the pope's emotional response to meeting Obama. It was never going to go on at any length or in any detail about what they discussed. When Benedict XVI met with George W. Bush in 2008, for example, it was, yes, awesome, but the joint statement of the Holy See and the White House didn't exactly describe the visit in florid terms. That's just how these things go.

I realize that reporters have editors who demand speedy coverage of major news events, that this qualified as one, and that it isn't easy to produce good, accurate copy at the drop of a hat. But what I don't understand is why anybody expected this meeting to produce major news. Francis gave Obama a copy of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Obama gave Francis a box of seeds made from wood reclaimed from the National Shrine. They smiled for the cameras. They talked. The Holy See Press Office produced an anodyne statement on the meeting. It was never going to provide a transparent window on the president's conversation with the pope. Now would be a good time for commentators and reporters to stop fogging up the glass.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



Commenting Guidelines

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Anyone can read what the White House said and what the Vatican said about the meeting. That is all that is known by the reporters, commentators and bloviators. (And you can know it, too, through the wonder of the Internet.) Then when you read what the reporters, commentators and bloviators made of what they --and you -- know, you almost despair. Well, I do anyway.

The Fox approach of knowing the answer before you figure out the question is getting to be pervasive.

There was certainly no animosity in the meeting. The body language was all positive. It could be that some in the US with ties to the Vatican pitched in for the spin to go their way. But we already know that Francis is not interested in the cultural wars that the American bishops have thrived on. In fact in Italy abortion has never been the poltical football it is here. Francis is no John Paul or Benedict. So far it seems positive for those who want to see the gospel prevail rather than power elite. 

Dr. Robert Moynihan (The Moynihan Letter) will give his analysis of the meeting on the O'Reilly Factor tonight.  Having read his latest post on the meeting, I am prepared to hear him imply that in his  press conference after the meeting Obama was not truthful about what he and the pope discussed.


I think we need also to remember that the news media -- even the best of them -- thrives on controversy and looks for it even when it's not quite as important as they say. In a sense contraception (on which most of us have made up our minds) sells better than income inquality or poverty, about which we may differe wildly with one another. Or what to do the the new Czar of All the Russias (to use a title from the past), about which none of us may have any good ideas.

Juan Williams gave it to Charles Krauthammer on the Bret Baier show on Fox News. Williams laughed that Krauthammer would make it so political when it was not. It is amazing how Krauthammer gives the appearance of being so analytical when he is always totally partisan. C

Helen, i didn't hear Moynihan on the TV, but in his two letters on the meeting he doesn't express any doubt about the accuracy of what   The President said

Letter 11:

We know from the Vatican press communique released after the meeting that the points touched upon were mainly of two types: (1) world issues and (2) US issues

But we do not know — and this is important — which of these matters were discussed directly with Pope Francis, and which were discussed with other high-ranking Vatican officials, like Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, who met with Obama after the meeting with the Pope ended. The Vatican’s press communique lumps all the meetings together, so it is impossible to know from the communique which topic was discussed with which person.

Letter 12 (later) he just quotes what the President said at his press conference -  without questioning it. 

And he [Pope Francis] actually did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act. In my meeting with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, we discussed briefly the issue of making sure that conscience and religious freedom was observed in the context of applying the law. And I explained to him that most religious organizations are entirely exempt. Religiously affiliated hospitals or universities or NGOs simply have to attest that they have a religious objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception although that employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it through the insurance company.

And I pledged to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops to make sure that we can strike the right balance, making sure that not only everybody has health care but families, and women in particular, are able to enjoy the kind of health care coverage that the AC offers, but that religious freedom is still observed.

Moynihan did point out that if the President gets around reading the copy of Evangelii Gaudium Francis gave him, he will find the Pope's views on abortion, contraception, religious freedom, etc. I assume this was to cheer up people who had hoped that Francis was going to give him a stern lecture on those subjects.

Did he say something else on TV?



Like these people, who have their own take on what happened:

I haven't read any of the news on the meeting but I really liked this photo of them together   :)  ...

Crystal --

Nice photo.  The body language tells me that Obama is much more drawn to Francis than Francis is drawn to him.  Obama will still be a relatively young man when his term is up, and I can't see him settling down to write history.  But he'd make a fine preacher if he got into theology.  Maybe the Pope will nudge him in that direction.   Obama really misses not having a father, and Francis just might become a father figure for him.  OK, OK, pure speculation.

I thought this was news-worthy, but for some reason, this nugget never got picked up by major news outlets. 

From Rome Reports:

At about 1:30 mark, while presenting his gifts, the Pope tells Obama:

"This gift is from the pope. But this other one is from Jorge Bergoglio. When I saw it, I said, 'I'll give to Obama.' It's the Angel of Peace. "








I concur that the meeting was probably, overall, more positive than the intimations of the media, both Catholic and otherwise would lead you to believe. Certainly, the issue of the contraception mandate was brought up at some point by somebody (either the pope or Secretary of State). Afterall, it is before the Supreme Court and it has implications for the Catholic community.

The issue is accommodation and the US government argues that they have accommodated as the sisters can check a box. The sisters feels that there are still problematic issues related to that and so now it is before the Supreme Court.

Of course, we can all agree that from both a social and financial point of view, court is not the best place to resolve civil conflicts (no offence to the lawyers on the board).

At any rate, other issues as well and I agree that the body language suggests warm camaraderie and also tend to agree with Anne's insight around Francis being a kind of father figure for Obama. 

I thought the President's word choice when talking about the content of his meeting was interesting. He said he and Pope Francis didn't discuss matters of "social schism." Schism, like when people deliberately separate themselves from the One True Ideology and start some sort of parallel body. When the system is not bought into, when a group dissents from the One Magisterium and chooses to go its own way. That is how the President apparently views concerns about religious freedom raised by Catholic bishops, or shall we say, "schismatics."

Kathy, the "schism" language wasn't the president's word choice. Here's how the Q&A went:

Q: Mr. President, I just want to follow up on Jim’s question on your meeting with the Pope today.  Do you think some of the schisms that he (the reporter) referenced on social issues would stand in the way of you and Pope Francis collaborating or forming a strategic alliance to tackle income inequality?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  First of all, I just want to make clear -- maybe it wasn’t clear from my answer to Jim -- that we actually didn’t talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness.  In fact, that really was not a topic of conversation.  I think His Holiness and the Vatican have been clear about their position on a range of issues, some of them I differ with, most I heartily agree with.  And I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue.  His job is a little more elevated. 

The question may in fact indicate a preconceived story line that played out in a lot of copy but which didn't reflect reality.

Speaking of not reflecting reality, Rick Santorum says Obama is spinning the Pope meeting to his own advantage, and Santorum says that's his job:

I am happy they met.  But to be completely honest, the body language looked like two little kds at a play date--they're meeting each other for the first time, acutely aware that everyone is watching them meeting each other. 

David Gibson's correction to Obama's use of the word schism is a perfect example of the knee jerk reaction that is given by those who just cannot abide Obama and his policies.

In Moynihan's Letter 11 on his website, Inside the Vatican, he writes:

At the end, they exchanged gifts, with the Pope offering Obama two medallions and a copy of his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel [Evangelii Gaudium]. ‘You know, I actually will probably read this when I’m in the Oval Office, when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me down,’ Obama said. ‘I hope,’ the Pope responded.”

In the next paragraph Moynihan writes his spin on Obama’s comment:

“Associated Press report on today’s meeting in the Vatican of US President Barack Obama with Pope Francis by Jim Huhnhenn and Nicole Winfield. The photo below shows the Pope handing Obama the copy of his encyclical, which Obama said he will ‘probably read.’"

I have read comments of others on the pope's response, "I hope." (e.g., I hope you see the errors of your thinkng.) It is pretty obvious to me that the pope was responding to Obama's compliment that the apostolic exhoration will give him strength and calm him down.




I'm sure the President is fully capable of accepting or rejecting an interviewer's word choices as well as his/her premises. He did one but not the other. Whether or not he brought the word into the conversation, he used it himself.

I thought the Pope's gift of Evangelii Gaudium was an excellent choice on his part. President Obama has indicated that he will read it, and I hope he does. He will find a great deal in it on which the two leaders strongly agree, and hopefully the Pope's excellent summary about the incalculable importance of all human beings will give the President pause:

"213. Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenceless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this. Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defence of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. Reason alone is sufficient to recognize the inviolable value of each single human life, but if we also look at the issue from the standpoint of faith, “every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual”.

214. Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?"



John Hayes,

No, I did not see the interview on the O'Reilly Factor. The reason why I was a bit negative about the interview on the O'Reilly factor with Moynihan has to do with my post at 9:45 this morning.

At the O'Reilly Factor website there are just a few comments about the interview. Moynihan confirmed that the issue of ACA mandate was discussed in detail at a later meeting with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, and not with the pope. Ken Hackett, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, who was present at that meeting, confirmed that.


I see we are devoting a good bit of attention to the arcane science of interpreting body language. I suppose that's better than making up the thoughts of the participants in the meeting, And I know it's better than making up their thoughts before the meeting and then reporting them after the meeting as if the prticipants followed our script. But, really: Body language? Anybody have a dictionary for that?

I iterate: All we know is what the White House and Obama said and what the Vatican said. Obama added to his official word. The pope didn't. We may predict that Obama is not going to rewrite the ACA as a result of meeting the pope, and the pope is not going to embreace abortion. OK? But we knew all that before we started. The rest is straight Rashomon.



Anybody have a dictionary for that?

Quintilian, perhaps?

The rest is straight Rashomon

I found the spirit medium's testimony most persuasive; perhaps a pundit speak to one.

Re: body language

Hardly and arcane science. Well over 80 percent of all communication is non-verbal. Have you never been on a date?


Body language is when your body movements, especialy the involuntary ones, cofrim or deny what your words say. 

"This gift is from the pope. But this other one is from Jorge Bergoglio. When I saw it, I said, 'I'll give to Obama.' It's the Angel of Peace. "


John hayes, what is your take on this. BTW, do you work for the US bishops. How about some full disclosure.


Thanks, Grant, for starting this discussion of the coverage of the Francis/Obama meeting. Pieces like this have to be timely, and take some fast, hard work. Friends and family often try to do this sort of thing over the phone or net or lunch fast enough, but read many of the same sources, and often from roughly the same point of view, so this quick "coverage of the  coverage" was a neat idea. Keep it on your "to do" list. 

Bill Mazzella, I liked that "this one's from the Pope but this one is from Jorge" Sounds as if Francis wants a personal relationship. It's like a lot of things he's done that make him so effective. No, I don't have any connection with the USCCB. 

John Hayes,

You are right to think that the Pope and the President hit a personal note.  Don't expect the right wing to acknowledge that because it does not fit its agenda.  Posts on this thread already demonstrate that with the willful misinterpretation of the converstion.

My guess is that Francis is thinking that he is with Obama on separation of church and state. He must be wondering he would have never chosen the kind of bishops that are in the US. They forget the poor. Build zillion dollar cathedrals. Have more sympathy with abuser clergy than victims. And ignore the vast majority of Married Christians who practice contraception. 

Same goes for Holly Lobby.  If the Supreme court rules in its favor, then people can object to everything. 

Maybe Catholics should take the bishops to court for not fulfilling their mandate. 

George D, I have been on dates. I guess misreading body language is what leads to date rape. Try that one on the judge.

Seriously, many years ago I was tasked to introduce a speaker. I had barely begun when I noticed a friend of mine in the first row who was either a) having a heart attack b) trying to tell me I was introducing the wrong person or c) getting ready to shoot everyone in the room. The effect was so unnerving that I lost the introducee's name for a moment.

Afterward I asked my friend what thaty had been all about. He said he was concentrating on what I was saying. Oh.

Looks like love to me :-)

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