Obama, Pope Benedict agree to disagree on abortion, stem-cell research


Meeting for the first time, President Obama and Pope Benedict XVI sought common ground Friday on peace in the Middle East but struggled to bridge differences over abortion and stem-cell research -- divisive issues that have the White House battling with conservative and Catholic Americans back at home.

The pontiff pressed Obama on “the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience,” the Vatican said after closed-door talks between the two leaders, in a clear reference to the debate over embryonic stem-cell research, abortion and the right of healthcare professionals to opt out from such procedures if it conflicts with their beliefs.

Obama has consistently enunciated his support for both abortion rights and stem-cell research, which the Roman Catholic Church opposes. But the White House has been eager to shore up political support among Catholics and to find a way to defuse some of the tension around issues that have already caused some bishops and priests to denounce the Obama administration.


The president and the pope met for half an hour for what aides to both leaders described as a frank but cordial exchange of views. Before their talks began, Obama seemed clearly impressed to be in the presence of the Holy See, professing it a “great honor” and thanking the pope for his time.

The Vatican also signaled the importance it attached to the meeting by scheduling it for the late afternoon, in a departure from usual protocol, apparently to accommodate Obama’s busy schedule earlier in the day at the Group of 8 industrialized nations’ summit in the distant Italian town of L’Aquila. Meetings between the pope and foreign dignitaries almost invariably take place in the morning.

The two leaders expressed a joint desire to promote peace in the Middle East, aides said. They also discussed the fight against religious extremism and the need to reach out to Muslims.

But the bulk of the conversation reportedly centered on the vexed issues of abortion and stem-cell research. The Holy See had considered the U.S. an ally in opposing those practices when George W. Bush was president, and so Obama’s divergence from that position has been a cause of concern to the Vatican.

To underscore his views, Benedict gave Obama a copy of the Vatican’s official teachings on bioethics, which the president said he would read on his flight later in the day to Ghana.

Denis McDonough, a national security aide to Obama, said that “it may just be that there’s issues that they can’t come to agreement on.”


But Obama believes “that you can disagree without being disagreeable,” McDonough added.

The White House in the last few weeks has invited abortion opponents to Washington to talk about finding common ground on issues such as family planning, sex education and adoption, in hopes of coming up with a series of recommendations by the end of the summer that both sides of the abortion issue can support. Obama won a majority of Catholic votes in the election and clearly wants to maintain that support.

After the talks Friday, First Lady Michelle Obama and the Obamas’ two young daughters were ushered in for an audience with the pope.

In their meeting, the president also passed along to the pontiff a letter from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a member of America’s most prominent Catholic family. Obama asked Benedict to pray for Kennedy, who is suffering from a brain tumor.


Tribune staff writer Christi Parsons contributed to this report from L’Aquila.