VATICAN CITY — Face to face for the first time, President Obama and Pope Francis focused publicly on their mutual respect and shared concern for the poor on Thursday. But their lengthy private discussion also highlighted the deep differences between the White House and the Catholic Church on abortion and birth control.
The gaps were evident in the differing accounts Obama and the Vatican gave of the meeting, with Obama stressing the two leaders’ common ground on fighting inequality and poverty while Vatican officials emphasized the importance to the church of ‘‘rights to religious freedom, life, and conscientious objection.’’ That point by church officials referred to a major disagreement over a provision of Obama’s health care law.
The meeting inside the grand headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church marked a symbolic high point of Obama’s three-country visit to Europe. For a president whose approval ratings have slipped since winning reelection, it was also an opportunity to link himself to the hugely popular pope and his focus on fighting poverty.
‘‘Those of us as politicians have the task of trying to come up with policies to address issues,’’ he said following the meeting. ‘‘But His Holiness has the capacity to open people’s eyes and make sure they’re seeing that this is an issue.’’
The president said the plight of the poor and marginalized was a central topic in their talks, along with Middle East peace, conflicts in Syria, and the treatment of Christians around the world. Social issues, he said, were not discussed in detail.
However, the Vatican left out any reference to inequality issues in its description of the meeting. In a written statement, church officials instead said discussions among not only the pope and president but also their top aides centered on questions of particular relevance for the church leaders in the United States, making veiled references both to abortion and a contraception mandate in Obama’s health care law, which is under review by the Supreme Court.
For Obama, the meeting with the pope marked a departure from the intense focus on the situation in Ukraine, which dominated his first three days in Europe.
Obama has visited the Vatican once before as president, meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. But his meeting with the current pope was more highly anticipated, given their shared economic philosophies and Francis’ global popularity.
Obama and Francis, two of the world’s most recognizable men, both appeared nervous as they shook hands before entering the Papal Library.
‘‘I’m a great admirer,’’ Obama said to the smiling pope. The two men then sat across from each other at a wooden desk for a private meeting that lasted 52 minutes, beyond the half-hour that had been scheduled.
Obama extended an invitation for the pope to visit the United States. Speaking in his native Spanish, the Argentine pope replied, ‘‘Why not?’’