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Boston College Expert: Meeting of President Obama and Pope Francis

James Bretzke


Fr. Bretzke is a Jesuit priest and professor of moral theology at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.  He is the author of 70 articles/reviews and five books including A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology and Consecrated Phrases: A Latin Theological Dictionary. He earned a doctorate at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he also taught for three years.  He has also taught for several years in Seoul, Korea at Sogang University and as a Visiting Professor of Moral Theology at the Loyola School of Theology of the Ateneo de Manila, Philippines.  On the weekends, Father Bretzke ministers at St. Michael's Parish in Bedford, Mass.

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President Obama will finish the European leg of his current trip abroad with a visit to the Vatican tomorrow night  for his first meeting with Pope Francis.

“The Italians have an expression for this kind of a meeting: baciamano, and it means literally in Italian, ‘kissing the hand,’ so this is a courtesy call,” says Boston College School of Theology and Ministry Professor James Bretzke, S.J. “I think that this will be one more opportunity for the Pope to send indirectly another message to the American church and especially the American bishops of where he really wants to go in terms of priorities for the church. And I think that this is  a message that’s not being well received by certain bishops in the United States and it’s being received well by other bishops, so I think they will all have their Episcopal fingers wetted, holding them up in the air to see which way the prevailing breezes blow.”

President Obama and Pope Benedict are expected to talk about a broad range of issues, such as Ukraine, poverty, tensions in the Middle East, immigration, and economic inequality, a topic Pope Francis has focused on in his first year in office.

“It seems to me that Pope Francis’s basic attitude, at least in these public meetings, is to look for common ground, look for points where he could be in agreement with the leader that he is receiving,” says Fr. Bretzke, an expert on papal affairs who taught for three years in Rome. “In this sense the Pope is a good diplomat, so I expect that he’s going to be looking for hope, or at least verbal assurance that President Obama shares with the pope some of the pope’s foundational concerns that he’s expressed.

“Some people will be looking to see if the Pope is going to criticize or challenge Obama on the contraception mandate in the Affordable Healthcare Act, and I would be looking to see how this is addressed, and if it is addressed, what language would be used?,” says Fr. Bretzke, author of five books. “But I am not expecting the Pope to be censorial in the way some of the American bishops have been clearly censorial about Obama. I think the Pope is going to be more muted than some of his brother bishops in the United States.”

This is not the President’s first trip to the Vatican; he was there in 2009 visiting Pope Benedict. That meeting was cordial, and while tomorrow night’s meeting is expected to be no different, Pope Francis is expected to get his point across.

“He probably will underscore the importance of letting people freely exercise their religion and their beliefs and that is where there is some tension with the Affordable Care Act and the contraception mandate, especially vis-à-vis religious institutions, so I think it will be brought up but I think it’s going to be somewhat muted,” says Fr. Bretzke. “These meetings are important for maintaining or building relationships, they’re important for the ways they can be spun by subordinates who will say, ‘Well, the President supports the Pope on this’ or ‘The Pope supports the President on that’ but there’s not going to be a treaty, there’s not going to be a working agreement on anything. I would be astounded if something like that happened. But it will be an important courtesy call.”


Media Note: Contact information for additional Boston College faculty sources on a range of subjects is available at: /offices/pubaf/journalist/experts.html


Sean Hennessey
Associate Director
Office of News and Public Affairs
Boston College

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