VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI received Nancy Pelosi, one of the most prominent pro-choice politicians in America, and told her Wednesday that Catholic politicians have a duty to protect life "at all stages of its development."
The U.S. House speaker, a Catholic, was the first top Democrat to meet with Benedict since the election of President Obama, who won a majority of the U.S. Catholic vote despite differences with the Vatican on abortion.
On his fourth day in office last month, Obama ended a ban on funds for international groups that perform abortions or provide information on the option -- a policy change from former president Bush's Republican administration.
The Vatican's attempts to keep the Pelosi visit low-profile demonstrated its unease with the new U.S. administration. Benedict and Bush had found common ground in opposing abortion, an issue that drew them together despite their differences over the war in Iraq.
Wednesday's meeting, in a small room off a Vatican auditorium after the pope's weekly public audience, was closed to reporters and photographers.
The Vatican also said -- contrary to its usual policy when the pope meets world leaders -- that it was not issuing either a photo or video of the encounter, saying the meeting was private.
A short statement from the Vatican said the pope "briefly greeted" Pelosi and did not mention any subject they may have discussed other than abortion.
In their 15-minute meeting, the Vatican said 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," the Vatican said.
Pelosi, for her part, did not even mention the pope's allusion to abortion.
In a statement issued by her office, Pelosi 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," Pelosi said.
"I was proud to show His Holiness a photograph of my family's papal visit in the 1950s, as well as a recent picture of our children and grandchildren," said the California congresswoman, who has often expressed pride in her religious heritage.
Pelosi is the third person in line in U.S. government, after Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden.
The treatment of Pelosi echoed the Vatican's earlier treatment of Geraldine Ferraro, a Catholic who was the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984. The Vatican did not disguise its irritation at Ferraro's position that she opposed abortion but also opposed outlawing it.
Pope John Paul II's meeting with Ferraro in 1985 was never officially announced and -- like the Pelosi audience -- no photo was released.
While some Vatican officials under Benedict have been openly critical of the Democrats and Obama over abortion -- former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke has said the Democrats risk becoming a "party of death" -- Benedict has cautiously welcomed Obama's new administration.
Still, a number of bishops in the United States have questioned Pelosi's stance on abortion, particularly her theological defense of her support for abortion rights.
The question of how much religion should influence American politicians came to the forefront with the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic to become U.S. president, and has continued to this day.
A number of American lawmakers who support abortion rights attended Benedict's Mass in Washington last April, including Pelosi and Sen. John Kerry, the former Democratic presidential candidate in 2004.
During the 2004 campaign, several U.S. bishops questioned whether Kerry should receive Communion because of his stand on abortion. But no American priest or bishop tried to deny Kerry Communion. At the April 2008 papal Mass, Kerry took Communion from a priest far from the papal altar.
Pelosi also had meetings with Italian leaders in the past few days, including Premier Silvio Berlusconi.