- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2014

President Obama’s first meeting with Pope Francis produced a little schism of its own.

The Vatican and White House gave starkly different versions Thursday of Mr. Obama’s meeting with Francis.

The president’s account downplayed the Catholic Church’s concerns about religious freedom in the United States and Obamacare’s mandate to pay for contraception.

PHOTOS: Awesome rifles: The best and the baddest

The pontiff and the president were cordial in the televised portions of their meeting, but a subtle competition to set the agenda played out after the meeting, which went well beyond its scheduled half-hour.

“We actually didn’t talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness,” Mr. Obama said at a press conference in Rome. “In fact, that really was not a topic of conversation.”

Mr. Obama deflected a reporter’s question about the extent of his discussion with the pope on the contraceptive mandate by saying that Francis “actually did not touch in detail” on the subject. The administration has been locked in a lengthy legal and political battle with the U.S. Catholic Church hierarchy over Obamacare and issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

PHOTOS: Hail to the Chiefs: U.S. Presidents portrayed in film

The Vatican, however, issued a statement after the meeting saying the president’s discussions with Francis and two other top Vatican officials focused “on questions of particular relevance for the [Catholic] Church in [the United States], such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection” — issues that have fueled divisions between Mr. Obama and the church.

Although Mr. Obama wanted to highlight his bond with Francis over questions of economic inequality and helping the poor, Obamacare’s mandate for employers to pay for birth control gained more attention.

The president clearly wanted to benefit from the global popularity of the pope. Their meeting was a highlight of Mr. Obama’s foreign trip that ends Friday in Saudi Arabia, but it was at an awkward time for the president.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act’s mandate requiring for-profit employers of a certain size to offer insurance benefits that cover birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay. Some employers object to the mandate on the grounds that it violates their religious beliefs.

The president acknowledged that his meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, included a discussion about “the issue of making sure that conscience and religious freedom was observed in the context of applying the law.” Mr. Obama repeated the administration’s argument that it has tried to accommodate churches and faith-affiliated institutions in regard to the health care law.

“I explained to him that most religious organizations are entirely exempt,” Mr. Obama said. “Religiously affiliated hospitals or universities or [nongovernmental organizations] simply have to attest that they have a religious objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception — although employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it through the insurance company.”

Mr. Obama said he pledged to the cardinal “to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of [Catholic] Bishops to make sure that we can strike the right balance — making sure that not only everybody has health care but families and women in particular are able to enjoy the kind of health care coverage that the ACA offers, but that religious freedom is still observed.”

The president said he found an ally in Francis, a native of Argentina, on the issue of immigration reform during their nearly hourlong discussion.

“As someone who came from Latin America, I think he was very mindful of the plight of so many immigrants who are wonderful people, working hard, making contributions, [and] many of their children are U.S. citizens,” Mr. Obama said. “And yet they still live in the shadows, in many cases have been deported and are separated from families.”

Story Continues →