In the News 2014

Many Voices Try to Shape Pope Francis-Obama Meeting

In anticipation of Pope Francis’ Thursday meeting with President Barack Obama, activist Judie Brown sent the pontiff an unsolicited 12-page memo that detailed what she said is the administration’s hostility toward the church on issues such as abortion and contraception.

The meeting also spurred 10-year-old Jersey Vargas to travel to Rome from Los Angeles to ask the pope to help her and other American children of undocumented immigrants by supporting changes to U.S. immigration law.

And a group critical of the church’s handling of priest sex-abuse cases wants the president to push Pope Francis to get tougher on the issue.

As this president and this pope meet for the first time, in Vatican City, America’s Roman Catholics are clamoring to influence the agenda, lobbying both men on issues from immigration to health care. While meetings between popes and presidents are largely symbolic, some activists see this one as a chance to gain traction on several issues that are coming to the fore, at a time when the American church grapples with demographic and social changes.

Groups pushing to overhaul immigration laws in the U.S. see Pope Francis—the first pontiff from Latin America and one who has largely emphasized poverty and social justice since he was chosen as pope last year—as a receptive audience. Church membership in the U.S., home to an estimated 7% of the world’s Catholics, has been boosted largely by immigration from Latin America in recent years. Next week, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston will lead a group of American bishops to the Arizona border with Mexico to pray for migrants who have lost their lives crossing the desert.

“We feel that we finally have a true friend that understands what we’re all going through in America with this immigration crisis, and who seriously believes that we urgently need to do something about it,” said Juan José Gutiérrez, an immigration-rights activist who traveled to Rome with a group including 10-year-old Jersey.

On Wednesday at the Vatican, Jersey, whose father was in the U.S. illegally and was detained by immigration authorities, worked her way to the front of the crowd after the pope’s general audience and asked him to help her family and others like hers, according to a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which helped arrange access.

The meeting also comes as the U.S. church clashes with the Obama administration over a provision in the health-care law requiring businesses to provide access to contraceptives to employees, notwithstanding any religious objections that employers might have. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over the issue this week and is expected to rule in late June.

Ms. Brown, the president of the American Life League, a Catholic group that advocates for church positions on contraceptives and abortion, said the contraceptive mandate in the health-care law “is imposed on Christian faith by a government that holds faith in disdain.” Ms. Brown, a former member of a pontifical academy on bioethics, said she wasn’t asking the pope to raise a specific issue with the president but wanted the pope to have her memo on the administration’s stance on birth control and abortion in light of the current debate in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Before the meeting, the pope was to be briefed on the health-care law, both on “positive aspects from the point of view of Catholic social teaching, and the religious freedom” aspect, a person familiar with the plans said. The pope, while focusing on issues other than certain cultural ones, hasn’t changed traditional church teachings on those issues and is expected to defend them.

The Vatican said in a statement Wednesday that the meeting would “take place in the context of a complex phase of the administration’s relations” with the U.S. church on issues such as the health law and gay marriage. The White House said the president would look “forward to discussing with Pope Francis their shared commitment to fighting poverty and growing inequality.”

A liberal Catholic group, Catholics for Choice, took out a full-page ad in the International New York Times to remind the president that the pope “is not our political leader,” said Jon O’Brien, the group’s president. “The majority of Catholics believe Pope Francis is leading our church in a positive direction, but the Vatican’s draconian rules on sex and sexuality…still do not reflect the real lives of lay Catholics.”

Advocates for victims of priest sex abuse are urging Mr. Obama to press the pope for greater church accountability. Last week, the Vatican announced appointments to a new commission to help the church confront the problem., which documents sex-abuse cases in the church, sent a letter to Mr. Obama asking him to push the pope to help federal officials track abusive priests who have fled the U.S. “Use your historic meeting…to achieve something of substance,” the group wrote in a letter to Mr. Obama.

This piece was originally published by the Wall Street Journal.

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