Coverage of last week’s meeting between Pope Francis and President Obama often depicted it as a clash over the usual “hot-button” culture war issues, and that interpretation was supported by a number of conservative commentators in the U.S.

But the Vatican didn’t portray it that way, in its official statements or its own coverage, and a senior Vatican official over the weekend seemed to stress the positive nature and outcome of the meeting, even on points where the Holy See and Washington diverge.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva, said that in the wake of the meeting, the Catholic Church and the Obama administration could now develop a road toward “compromise” on controversial ethical issues, if not quite a “shared pathway.”

“The first impression of this meeting is the public image of a great warmth and the desire on the part of the Holy See to find a common path to fight poverty, to promote immigration reform, in short, on social themes that are very important,” said Tomasi, who was attending a meeting on Catholic social teaching in the northern Italian city of Trieste.

“There are, however, other problems that worry the Catholic Church in the United States, in particular those of an ethical nature,” Tomasi added, referring to differences over abortion, stem cell research, contraception policies, and the like.

But, according to a Vatican Radio report, Tomasi went on to say:

“The desire to find a way forward, a compromise, a solution – it seems that such an avenue could indeed grow from this cordial meeting.”

In other comments reported by Vatican Radio, Tomasi said that “the popularity and the credibility of Pope Francis are high everywhere,” and that has an impact on religion as a whole – not just Catholicism.

“I have to say,” the Vatican diplomat went on, “that some Muslim ambassadors, for example, hug me when they see me, telling me that “this is our pope, too.’ That means that there is a message that goes beyond the Catholic Church.”

“The figure of Pope Francis is seen not only as representative of the Catholic Church, but in some sense as representative of religion.”

That’s fascinating aspect to pursue — Francis is the head of a very institutional, Great Tradition church that is seen as the antithesis of the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious (SBNR) trend. He heads a church that is usually the object of reformers, not a vehicle for reform itself. (Though it should be ecclesia semper reformanda, reality often says otherwise.)

Could Francis rescue religion from spirituality?

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