Last year, Catholic bishops objected to a new regulation from the Obama administration that required employers to provide health insurance that fully covered birth control. Catholic employers, including hospitals and universities, objected to the rule, saying it conflicted with their religious beliefs.

Some cardinals gathered at the Vatican this week to elect a new pope have expressed concern that American contenders like Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., would be too closely aligned with the American government. But Obama said that shouldn't be a concern.

"It seems to me that an American pope would preside just as effectively as a Polish pope or an Italian pope or a Guatemalan pope," the president said.

But Obama — who is Christian but not Catholic — said he did not have a favorite candidate or particular preference in the papal elections.

"My hope is based on what I know about the Catholic Church – and the terrific work that they've done around the world and certainly around this country helping those who are less fortunate – is that you have a pope who sustains and maintains what I consider the central message of the Gospel," Obama said. "We treat everybody as children of God. We love them the way Jesus Christ taught us to love them."