By Sam Youngman - 07/09/09 10:09 PM EDT
Obama and the Vatican are at odds on abortion rights, stem cell research and other cultural issues, though he and the Pope may find common ground on the global economy and the need to help the poor. Benedict this week said he was concerned about global inequalities and called for more morality in the economy.
“We know the Pope has been keenly aware of the president's outreach to the Muslim world. The Pope shares the president’s view on reducing the number of nuclear weapons. So I think there’s certainly a lot of common ground,” Gibbs said
Gibbs also said Obama has demonstrated he is open to having “frank” conversations about tougher topics such as abortion. Gibbs noted the commencement speech Obama gave at Notre Dame University; some Catholics were infuriated the school invited Obama because of his position on abortion.
“Even if we don't see eye to eye on everything, there are steps that can be taken on a number of issues that will show progress, whether it's on something like unintended pregnancy or adoption -- some of those things that I think the Pope and the president will get a chance to discuss, and I assume it will be a very frank conversation,” Gibbs said.
Abortion rights has continually sparked tensions between the church and Democrats. It’s particularly been difficult for Catholic politicians in the U.S.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is Catholic, earlier this year received the equivalent of a papal rebuke for her support of abortion rights.
After Pelosi and her husband met with His Holiness at the Vatican in February, the Vatican released a blistering statement criticizing abortion rights supporters. Pelosi's office chose instead to focus on areas where she and the Pope agrees.
In the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee and Catholic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) found himself in the middle of a similar controversy when one archbishop threatened to deny him communion because of his support for abortion rights.
Obama’s bilateral meeting with the Pope on policy issues will be followed by a private audience Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will enjoy with His Holiness. The Obamas are not Catholic.
Administration officials acknowledge the visit with the Pope is not like other heads of state.
“Given the influence of the Catholic Church globally, as well in the United States, and frankly, given the influence of the Catholic Church and Church social teaching on the president, himself, he recognizes that this is much more than your typical state visit,” National Security Agency spokesman Denis McDonough told reporters in Italy.
McDonough said Obama “looks very much forward to his visit” and meeting the Pope in person after talking to him on the phone shortly after last year's election.