U.S. President Barack Obama’s March 27 meeting with Pope Francis comes at a time of tension between his administration and the Church over religious liberty, several Catholic leaders have said.
“There has been a great deal of acrimony over issues related to religious freedom. This is something new and quite serious, since it affects the ability of the Church to carry out its mission,” V. Bradley Lewis, a philosophy professor at the Catholic University of America, told CNA March 26.
He said relations between the U.S. government and the Catholic Church are “quite vexed … I don't believe they have been this vexed in my memory.”
Many Catholic dioceses, charities, universities, health care systems, and even the Little Sisters of the Poor, have filed legal challenges against the Obama administration’s mandate requiring most employers to cover or aid access to procedures and drugs that violate Catholic teaching: sterilization and contraception, including some abortion-causing drugs.
Lewis said that the contraception mandate has been “a source of great tension,” it is “not an isolated incident.”
The Obama administration has revised conscience protection rules in federal health care law, and argued against protecting the hiring decisions of religious groups before the U.S. Supreme Court – an argument rejected in a unanimous decision by the justices.
The administration also ended a contract with the U.S. bishops to help human trafficking victims. Its allies opposed the grant because the program would not facilitate access to abortion and contraception.
Lewis commented that Pope Francis is in a “very strong position” to make a case to the president about the importance of religious freedom, “in a way that cannot be perceived as politically motivated.”
“I hope the president will listen.”
Chad Pecknold, a religion professor at the Catholic University of America, agreed with Lewis that the Obama administration’s relationship with the Catholic Church has been “tense.”
“Some bishops have described the administration as hostile to the Catholic Church, and coercive of conscience.”
He attributed these hostilities largely to the government’s agenda, rather from “any hostility of the Church toward the duly-elected government.”
Pecknold said Pope Francis is not unaware of these tensions, and though he will have wanted to diffuse them, “he will almost certainly seek to stand with the fight for religious liberty, to defend the weak and unborn against the unjust exercise of free choice.”
He said it was unusual for U.S. presidents to visit the Pope until after the Second Vatican Council; but since John F. Kennedy’s presidency, every U.S. president has met with the Pope.
“This particular meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis is significant as their first meeting, and because of perceived symmetries between them on questions of economic justice,” Pecknold reflected.
However, he added that such meetings are “so often symbolic,” and it is uncertain whether substantive discussions take place.
Lewis said the Pope is a “unique world leader” who has “no particular political or geopolitical agenda or interest.”
“His agenda is the Gospel and his authority is moral and spiritual in nature,” he added, suggesting other world leaders value discussions with the Pope because “he has no ulterior motives” and because so many of their citizens consider him a spiritual leader.
Maryann Cusimano Love, a fellow of the Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, said the Church and the U.S. government have “many areas of common concern” in foreign policy and Pope Francis and Obama were likely to discuss these.
She noted their shared concern for peace and anti-poverty work, and suggested they could discuss nuclear weapons, since Obama is in Europe to host the Nuclear Security Summit.
“For the first time, a U.S. president … has agreed to the Catholic Church’s call for a world free of nuclear weapons,” Love said.
She noted the U.S. and the Holy See can find common ground in opposition to world hunger and human trafficking. Immigration issues are another point of discussion.
However, she noted that the U.S. government is arming and funding the military capacities of governments such as Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, as well as non-state combatants in Syria, while the Church has emphasized the need to reduce trade in guns and conventional weapons that can worsen conflicts.
“Bishops in Africa and Latin America will tell you that their countries are awash in guns that were ‘Made in the USA’,” Love said.
According to Love, both the Holy See and the U.S. government “work for peace in the Middle East,” though the Holy See supports stronger protections for Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians.
And Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo, director of the North American College’s Institute for Continuing Theological Education, told Vatican Radio March 26 that while “the Church … is looking for points we have in common,” the Holy See is “very concerned about questions, for example, of religious freedom.”
The Church is “concerned about ethical issues such as the destruction of the family by laws which propose gay marriage or ‘liberty’ in so many ways.”
“We believe in something else: We believe that there is a law placed in our hearts by God, and no one has the right to change that law. In fact, when one lives that law, one finds true freedom and true joy.”
“That’s what the Church wants, and certainly that is what this Pope wants.”
Following Obama’s meeting with Pope Francis, and later with officials of the Secretariat of State, the Holy See press office stated that “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 (the U.S), 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.”