VATICAN CITY — President Barack Obama and the Vatican gave distinctly different accounts of the president's audience with Pope Francis, with Obama stressing their common ground over issues of poverty and inequality and Vatican officials emphasizing sharp differences over abortion and birth control.
Obama described himself as "incredibly moved" by his nearly hour-long session with the popular pontiff. He said the two spent the most time discussing the plight of the poor and the marginalized as well as regions of conflict and the elusive nature of peace around the world.
The Vatican, in statement shortly after the conclusion of the meeting, said discussions centered 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" — issues that have fueled divisions between Obama and Catholics in the U.S.
But Obama said those discussions took place with the Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, not with Francis. Issues like contraception and religious freedom, Obama said, "really was not a topic of conversation" with the pope.
"I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him about the responsibilities that we all share to care for the least of these, the poor, the excluded," Obama said during a news conference with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Rome. "And 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."
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. But in a report on Vatican Radio the day before the meeting, the Vatican signaled that the divisive issues would indeed be on the agenda.