By Jim Kuhnhenn
WASHINGTON: When President Barack Obama meets Pope Francis in the Vatican in March, both men will speak a common economic language rooted in similar views about poverty and income inequality, giving prominence to an issue that the U.S. president wants to be a central theme of his second term.
The White House and the Vatican announced Tuesday that Obama will meet with the pope on March 27 during a four-day European trip that includes a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands and a U.S.-European Union summit in Brussels. The meeting is the first between the president and Pope Francis.
Francis has made it clear that Catholic positions on homosexuality and abortion haven’t changed.
“But in his view those issues which create conflict need to be de-emphasized a bit,” said John C. Green, a political scientist who specializes in religion and politics at the University of Akron.
The pope caused a stir in November when he decried trickle-down theories.
Francis’ attention to poverty has also captured the attention of Republicans, among them Rep. Paul Ryan (Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012) and Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
The economic theme will be a centerpiece of Obama’s State of the Union address next week. But his specific policies — a higher minimum wage, universal preschool and ending loopholes for the wealthy — face difficulty in Congress in an election year.
“American Catholics as a whole don’t tend to take specific policy guidance from the pope, whether it’s Pope Benedict or Pope Francis,” Green said. “But what the pope can do is to get them thinking about particular issues and thinking about them in distinctly Catholic ways. That kind of rethinking could very well be an advantage to President Obama.”