White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough just briefed the news media aboard Air Force One (en route from Rome to Accra) about today's meeting between President Obama and Pope Benedict XVI. Note that the president gave the pope a letter from Senator Kennedy (deep in transcript):
"MR. McDONOUGH: Hey, everybody. We just had a short talk with the President about his meeting with the Holy Father. Before the President met with the Holy Father, he spent about 10 or -- yes, about 10 minutes with Cardinal Bertone. They talked about a range of issues. The Cardinal also, underscoring the fact that they had little -- insufficient time, underscored that he would share a longer note with the President, which he looks very much forward to receiving.
But the three issues they discussed in depth were -- four issues they discussed in depth were the encyclical released earlier this week by the Holy Father -- incidentally, the Holy Father presented the President with a signed copy of that encyclical, which he was very gratified to receive and very honored to receive.
They talked about the encyclical. They also talked about the situation in the Middle East. They talked about Cuba. And they talked about Honduras. Obviously the President -- they also -- the Cardinal also mentioned in passing the food security initiative that was passed today.
As it relates to each of these, the President obviously underscored our policy directions that each -- that is to say the Middle East, Cuba, and Honduras -- but the President also underscored his particular appreciation for Archbishop Rodriguez, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, who has been playing a very critical role in the ongoing crisis there, and he expressed his appreciation for the fact that he continues to call on all sides to restrain from violence there, which is obviously a critical development.
As it relates to the meeting with the Holy Father, the President -- and Robert and I just met with the President -- they talked about interfaith dialogue, obviously mentioning the President's speech in Cairo, but also mentioning their shared desire for Middle East peace. The President underscored that he is committed to Middle East peace and expressed appreciation for the long-standing effort of the Holy See and the Pope himself in promoting that.
He encouraged -- he underscored his view that all sides have responsibilities in this effort and he pointed out that we continue to raise that -- those issues, and he expressed his hope that the Holy Father would continue to do that as well, including responsibilities that we believe are important not just from Israelis but also from the neighboring Arab states, including steps toward normalization with the Israelis.
They also discussed in that context their shared desire to reach out to Muslim communities as well as their shared goals of countering militarism and extremism, particularly with education. They also discussed immigration and their shared interests on reforming immigration in the United States; and then had an extensive -- had a conversation about bioethics and abortion.
Then they concluded with a discussion about Senator Kennedy. The President delivered a letter from Senator Kennedy to the Holy Father. He also asked that the Holy Father pray for President Kennedy, who as we all know is ill -- sorry, Senator Kennedy -- and whose brother obviously broke an important barrier in our country by being the first Catholic President elected of the United States.
MR. GIBBS: Let me add one thing to that. The President just as we lifted off spoke with Senator Kennedy for about 10 minutes, telling him that he had delivered the letter on his behalf to the Pope today.
Q Anything about the contents of the letter?
MR. GIBBS: The contents of the letter were not known to anybody that I know of except Senator Kennedy.
MR. McDONOUGH: And so the other thing the President mentioned to us, as we just spoke with him, was how beautiful he thought the Vatican itself. It's a quite moving building. Obviously the artwork is beautiful. The building itself is obviously beautiful. And the President was moved by the opportunity to visit and to see it. And I think his only wish that he had a little bit more time to see some of the beautiful stuff there.
Q Can you tell us a little bit, Denis, about the President's personal reaction to spending time with the Pope?
MR. McDONOUGH: Well, as I think we've discussed over the last several days, he was very much looking forward to the opportunity to see the Pope. I think that it's fair to say that he was very impressed and touched by the office of the Holy Father but also by the breadth of issues that they discussed. He was very touched, for example, by the fact that the Pope presented him a signed copy of the recent encyclical and he very much appreciated the opportunity to discuss a range of issues, including those on which they did not agree but on which it was clear that they both felt very strongly.
So I think it's fair to say -- Robert should jump in here -- that the President was very touched by the visit, very moved both by the office and by the Pope himself, and very hopeful that they can continue to work together.
Q About how many minutes did they spend together?
MR. McDONOUGH: They were scheduled to spend 20 minutes together. I didn't -- did you run the clock?
MR. GIBBS: No, but we were late getting out of there. My guess is it was closer to about half an hour.
Q Can you expand at all about the issues of abortion and bioethics that they discussed? What did each side say exactly? Did they discuss stem cells and what was the content of that part of the conversation?
MR. McDONOUGH: Well, we didn't get a full readout of it, and in any case we'd be disinclined to suggest what the Holy Father said. I will say this: that the President received a copy of a document produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican, which the Holy Father gave him. He was very appreciative that he gave it to him. It was a paper on -- let me just get you the title here -- "An Instruction on Certain Bioethical Questions." He looks forward to reading it.
My sense is that they discussed abortion and stem cells. They discussed a range of those issues. And I think the President was eager to listen to the Holy Father, was obviously eager to learn more about his views on this, and I think he underscored there what he underscored at Notre Dame, has underscored over the course of the last several years -- namely, that he is eager to find common ground on these issues and to work aggressively to do that.
Q Was it a conversation that you think is likely to change the President's views on certain controversial issues like abortion or --
MR. McDONOUGH: Well, the President, as he said in Notre Dame, has thought long and hard about these issues and he has his views on it. And so on one level I think part of the effort to find common ground is an effort to use language that is more hospitable to both sides on this question, as he himself has done. But at the end of the day, it may just be that there's issues that they can't come to agreement on, but I think he believes that you can be -- that you can disagree without being disagreeable.
Would you add anything to that, Robert?
MR. GIBBS: I think that's -- I think that hits all the benchmarks.
Q Did you say -- I thought I heard you say "roughly 30 minutes" -- that you're referring to the time they spent one on one?
MR. GIBBS: That's my impression, that it was one on one. Obviously the First Lady was -- had a chance to spend some time in there, as did the girls, Mrs. Robinson, and their godmother. I think the President obviously was tremendously grateful for his family getting a chance to share the same experience in meeting the Holy Father that he did. So I know it's quite an experience and lamented a little bit that the girls had spent a little bit more time looking around the Vatican prior to the President getting there than he had a chance to.
Q Was it a blessing?
MR. McDONOUGH: You know, the President, as I suggested, asked the Holy Father to pray for Senator Kennedy. We didn't ask him this specifically, but it'd be my hunch that the President and the Holy Father had a chance to pray together.
Q But we don't know for sure.
MR. GIBBS: We'll go double-check on that. Anything else?
Q The Archbishop --
MR. McDONOUGH: I'm sorry?
Q The Archbishop of Tegucigalpa -- is it limited to calling on all sides to quit violence or has he taken a stand on legitimacy of the coup or anything or is he just --
MR. McDONOUGH: You know, I'd have to go and double-check that, but we've been struck and the President has been struck on -- at the fact that the Archbishop has been obviously using his good offices to call for calm, to call for a resolution of this crisis.
Q Can I ask another very serious question? Has the South African President extended a formal invitation to President Obama to the soccer World Cup next year?
MR. McDONOUGH: I do not know the answer to that, but I'll get you an answer. I have a personal interest in that question, as well.
Q We do too. (Laughter.)
MR. McDONOUGH: It's not just AFP, by the way. (Laughter.)
Q So where is the mosaic going to hang?
MR. McDONOUGH: That's a good question. I'll get you an answer on that.
All right. Thanks, everybody.
MR. GIBBS: I just talked to the President. He said that he asked the Pope to pray for his family. That was the specific thing he asked -- another thing he specifically asked the Pope.
Q Did they pray together or did they --
MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of, no.
Q There was no blessing then, was there?
MR. GIBBS: I don't think anything formal that I'm aware of.
Q Anything what?
MR. GIBBS: Nothing formal. He, again, asked that the Pope pray for his family.
Q I see.
MR. GIBBS: All right. Thanks, guys.
Q Thanks, Robert."
And here is the Vatican's statement on the meeting:
"This afternoon, Friday 10 July 2009, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI received in Audience the President of the United States of America, His Excellency Mr. Barack H. Obama. Prior to the Audience, the President met His Eminence Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State, and also His Excellency Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States.
In the course of their cordial exchanges the conversation turned first of all to questions which are in the interests of all and which constitute a great challenge for the future of every nation and for the true progress of peoples, such as the defence and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience.
Reference was also made to immigration with particular attention to the matter of reuniting families.
The meeting focused as well upon matters of international politics, especially in light of the outcome of the G8 Summit. The conversation also dealt with the peace process in the Middle East, on which there was general agreement, and with other regional situations. Certain current issues were then considered, such as dialogue between cultures and religions, the global economic crisis and its ethical implications, food security, development aid especially for Africa and Latin America, and the problem of drug trafficking. Finally, the importance of educating young people everywhere in the value of tolerance was highlighted."
(Photo, by Osservatore Romano, shows President Obama and Pope Benedict XVI inspecting the mosaic of St. Peter's Square the pope gave the president today.)
Harvey Cox, the Hollis professor of divinity at Harvard University, marks his retirement by asserting a little-used right of his professorship -- to graze a cow in Harvard Yard. Photo, by Barry Chin of the Globe staff, taken on Sept. 10, 2009 in Cambridge, Mass.
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