Obama to find ally on justice in first meeting with Pope Francis

Wed Mar 26, 2014 7:19pm EDT
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By Philip Pullella and Jeff Mason

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Despite differences on moral issues, U.S. President Barack Obama will find in Pope Francis a welcome ally on issues of poverty and social justice when they meet for the first time at the Vatican on Thursday.

The president has sparred with the Catholic Church hierarchy in the United States over his support for abortion rights, gay marriage and the "contraception mandate" that requires employers to provide health insurance coverage for artificial birth control.

But the pope, while making clear that there will be no changes to Catholic doctrine on such issues, has used softer language than his predecessors.

In taking some of the heat out of the issue, he has tried to focus the Church instead on helping the world's disadvantaged, and signaled his dislike for the polarizing effects of "culture wars" among U.S. Catholics.

"Francis has made it clear that his emphasis is on poverty, immigration and other social issues," said Monsignor Robert Wister, theologian and professor of Church history at Seton Hall University in the United States.

Since his election a year ago, Pope Francis has several times criticized unbridled capitalism, the excesses laid bare by the global financial crisis, and the growing gap between the rich and poor, even in developed countries.

For his part, Obama has repeatedly praised the pope for his compassion and emphasis on helping the poor, and the meeting could help to give impetus to some of his initiatives back home, such as boosting the middle class and helping low-income Americans succeed.

"CRUCIAL VOICE"   Continued...

Pope Francis looks on as he leads a special audience with pilgrims from Terni's diocese in Paul VI hall at the Vatican March 20, 2014. REUTERS/Remo Casilli