Obama's visit to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis this Thursday will be their very first meeting. However, the Vatican has been visited 28 times by an American president.
The main purpose of President Obama's visit is to discuss bridging the gap between the rich and the poor. Obama has called income inequality “the defining challenge of our time,” and Pope Francis has made the plight of the poor the centerpiece of his papacy.
“One of the things that the Pope has done globally is put the issue of poverty back on the list,” says Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington.
For Obama, whose job-approval rating slipped to 41% earlier this month, the meeting is a rare chance to share a common policy discussion with a Pontiff who enjoys the popularity of a media superstar. Perhaps secretly, Obama is hoping this visit might boost his approval rating.
“It would be terrific for any politician on the planet to have his picture taken next to Pope Francis right now,” says Schneck, who served during the last election as national co-chair of Catholics for Obama. “Here in the United States, politicians like Paul Ryan are talking about poverty almost every day, and I think we have to credit the Pope with that.”
It is no secret that in just the first year of his papacy, Francis has shifted the Catholic conversation toward Obama’s side of the court, lowering the heat on culture-war battles like gay marriage and emphasizing the problems of the least fortunate.
But disagreement is a possibility between the president and the pope. The visit comes just two days after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments challenging the Affordable Care Act on grounds that it violated religious freedom by requiring for-profit corporations to provide insurance coverage for contraception. It’s an issue Pope Francis is likely to raise.
The other issues that might be discussed in this meeting could be climate change, workers' rights and immigration. While Obama favors immigration reform, his Administration has been unyielding when it comes to deportations. Francis has emphasized the plight of migrants. In July, he visited the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa to call attention to those who have died crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe.
Following the Pope's lead on immigration reform are a group of U.S. bishops, who at the end of the month are planning to perform a mass on the U.S.-Mexico border, in an effort to draw attention to the immigration debate.
“The Pope is full of surprises,” says John Wauck, a priest of the Opus Dei and a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. “All bets are off about what he might want to talk about to the President of the United States. He’s broken with convention so often in the past.”
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