March 26, 2014
President Barack Obama is in Italy for an audience with Pope Francis and talks with Italian leaders expected to focus on Ukraine and Russia. Obama then travels to Saudi Arabia, as he rounds out his trip abroad.
Francis is a celebrity these days and the president is probably eager to be seen with him, says Stephen Schneck, who directs the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America in Washington.
“Everybody on the planet would like to have their picture taken next to the pope right now,” said Schneck, who helped Obama win Catholic votes in the last election. “So yes, of course, the president has more to gain.”
Both Obama and the pope have said they are very concerned about wealth inequality. In his 20s Obama did community work in Chicago for a Catholic social justice program.
But as president, Obama has faced opposition from some Catholics over his position on abortion, and U.S. bishops have tried to torpedo his health reform law because it requires insurers to cover contraception for women. While the president was in Europe, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing a challenge to the law’s so-called contraceptive mandate.
It is unlikely the president and the pope will have the kind of rapport that John Paul II had with President Ronald Reagan, bolstered by their shared anti-communism, says Schneck.
“That was an extraordinary moment, a rare crack in history where all the stars aligned,” he said. “I do not see that happening in this case.”
After the Vatican, the president will meet King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia.
At a recent seminar in Washington, Hisham Melhem of the al-Arabiya news channel said that meeting will probably focus on the violence in Syria and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“But the president in every occasion should talk about American principles, should talk about respect for human rights, whether for religious minorities or not,” he said.
Christians have become targets in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, and Obama has been criticized for not speaking out more forcefully on their behalf.