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President Obama and Pope Francis discuss social issues, inequality concerns during first meeting

March 27, 2014 at 6:15 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: President Obama’s meeting with the pope today focused international attention on two of the most well-known leaders on the planet, what they share in common, and how they differ.

The president’s first ever visit with Pope Francis began with pomp and ceremonial tradition, as he proceeded through the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Wonderful to meet you.

GWEN IFILL: Their private meeting lasted nearly an hour, almost twice as long as expected. It came as Francis enjoys tremendous popularity in the second year of his pontificate.

Going in, the president told the pope he’s a great admirer.

Later, at a news conference with Italy’s prime minister, he underscored that sentiment.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I was extremely moved by his 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.

GWEN IFILL: But the two sides offered strikingly different accounts of the papal audience. Mr. Obama said they focused largely on areas where they have similar views.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his. One is the issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality. And then we spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world.

GWEN IFILL: By contrast, Vatican officials emphasized differences with the president’s policies. High atop that list is the Affordable Care Act mandate that requires employers to include birth control coverage. Another is abortion. President Obama supports abortion rights, while the pope defends the Roman Catholic Church’s anti-abortion stance.

A Vatican statement said: “There was a discussion the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform.”

The president acknowledged addressing those subjects, but with the Vatican’s secretary of state, not the pope.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We actually didn’t talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness. In fact, that really wasn’t 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.

GWEN IFILL: Whatever their differences, the two men were all smiles as they parted. The pope may travel to the U.S. in September of next year for a world gathering on families in Philadelphia.