Barack Obama was smiling broadly after his visit to the Vatican. Understandably so. The US President had gone into the Apostolic Palace clouded in predictions that he was in for an almighty admonishment for making contraception a compulsory part of Obamacare. But the laughter and relaxed body language between pontiff and president suggested something different.
Of course Pope Francis raised the subject. Roman Catholic bishops in the US have locked horns with Mr Obama over the issue and Francis is committed to what the Church calls collegiality — allowing local bishops, rather than Rome, to set priorities in any country. “Views were exchanged,” the Vatican said. However, the meeting was described as cordial and the mood afterwards confirmed that.
Pope Francis was sending a parallel message to the US bishops. He was telling them that they need to shift focus from the “culture wars” issues of abortion and gay marriage that have dominated church-state relations in the US in recent decades.
It’s a message that the Pope is sending to the wider Church; he has no intention of changing doctrine on issues surrounding sexual ethics but he has repeatedly declared that Catholics must show greater mercy and sensitivity towards pregnant women in crisis. And he has repeatedly signalled his impatience to move on to more important issues.