VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday told U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic who supports abortion rights, that Catholic politicians have a duty to protect life "at all stages of its development."
Pelosi is the first top Democrat to meet with Benedict since the election of Barack Obama, who won a majority of the American Catholic vote despite differences with the Vatican on abortion.
The Vatican released the pope's remarks to Pelosi, saying Benedict spoke of the church's teaching "on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death." That is an expression often used by the pope when expressing opposition to abortion.
Benedict said all Catholics — especially legislators, jurists and political leaders — should work to create "a just system of laws capable of protecting human life at all stages of its development."
In an e-mail issued by her office, Pelosi did not mention the allusion to abortion.
She said it was with "great joy" that she and her husband, Paul, met with Benedict.
"In our conversation, I had the opportunity to praise the Church's leadership in fighting poverty, hunger and global warming, as well as the Holy Father's dedication to religious freedom and his upcoming trip and message to Israel," she said.
The 15-minute meeting was closed to reporters and photographers. The two met in a small room off a Vatican auditorium after the pope's weekly public audience.
The Vatican said it was not issuing a photo of the meeting — as it usually does when the pope meets world leaders — saying the encounter was private. The statement said the pope "briefly greeted" Pelosi and did not mention any other subject they may have discussed.
A number of the bishops in the United States have questioned Pelosi's stance on abortion, particularly her theological defense of her support for abortion rights.
Benedict has cautiously welcomed Obama's new Democratic administration, although several American cardinals have sharply criticized its support for abortion rights. The new stance is a sharp break from government policy under former President George W. Bush.
Pelosi had meetings with Italian leaders in the past few days, including Premier Silvio Berlusconi.