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The Pope And The President - A Glimpse Of The Future

For those who observed it closely, the recent perfunctory meeting of Pope Benedict XVI and President Bush at the Vatican offered a glimpse at what future relations between the United States and the Holy See will be like. In most respects, it appeared to be a typical rendezvous between two heads of state. The pontiff welcomed Bush cordially, setting the tone for a relaxed thirty-five minute discussion that was nearly as cordial. The two dignitaries discussed areas of mutual interest and concern including religious freedom, human rights, and the deteriorating political and economic situation in Africa and the Middle East. When they had finished talking, the Pope and president followed the usual diplomatic custom of exchanging gifts: Bush offered Benedict a walking stick carved with the Ten Commandments, while Benedict presented Bush with an engraving of St. Peter's Basilica and a gold medallion representing his pontificate.

But the very typical nature of this meeting between two such different leaders ought to make observers suspicious. Indeed, when I read articles from various media outlets describing it, I immediately had a sense that it was an attractive veneer, a mere formality lacking substance. This is not to question the sincerity of either President Bush or Pope Benedict; I believe that both men have tried to do their best given their respective abilities and circumstances. Rather, it was evident that underneath their civility, occasional pleasant humor, and agreement on fundamental moral issues, a cauldron of definite mutual uneasiness-generated by the fire of major disagreement-was simmering.

To most people around the world, it is well known that Pope Benedict and President Bush have taken opposing stands on a wide range of matters. Benedict has firmly opposed the war in Iraq which Bush has insisted on continuing. Benedict has called for universal nuclear disarmament, while Bush has maintained the importance of strengthening his nation's arsenal. Benedict has called for aid to the Palestinian people, while Bush has refused such aid citing allegations that the Hamas government has been involved in terrorism. Benedict has stressed the importance of international law, multilateralism, and the United Nations in conducting international affairs, whereas Bush has insisted that the United States must take whatever actions necessary to preserve its own security and that of Israel. Benedict has warned against the perversion of free-market capitalism-especially on its global scale-into a vehicle for unlimited selfishness, while Bush has consistently implied that all leaders who regulate their national economies or who completely oppose the entrance of this laissez-faire system into their countries are enemies of the United States.

However, these differences are not impossible to reconcile. After all, both the US president and His Holiness have arrived at these views on the basis of the same moral concepts. What they differ on is in understanding and correct application of those ideas. For example, President Bush supports the Iraq war as a means of combating terrorism and ultimately ensuring the freedom of the Iraqi people; Pope Benedict opposes the same war as being severely destructive to the Iraqi people and nation, a violation of international law, and a futile attempt to rein in "Islamic" terrorism. Similarly, Benedict has emphasized the urgency of economic development aid for Africa and other poverty-stricken regions as a duty of justice that will further world peace, whereas Bush has placed military spending for national security far ahead of foreign aid on the ground that the duty to protect his own people from terrorism comes before helping foreigners out. Both leaders acknowledge the concepts of freedom, justice, the rule of law, security, solidarity, and peace; their disagreements revolve around the issue of how to implement those concepts-as well as the even stickier question of how to keep them all in proper balance.

A chief goal of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate is unity-but not a superficial kind of unity in which serious disagreements are forced below the surface. Rather, the Pope is helping to build worldwide unity of internal convictions and external objectives on the basis of the true, fundamental moral values that all peoples hold in common. His gentle personality and towering intellectual status render him amply suited to this challenging task.

Meanwhile, the overriding goal of President Bush's administration is to eradicate the international "Islamic" terrorist movement. The president has striven for unity among the nations of the world in confronting this menace with a "War on Terrorism", but instead his policies have led to a worsening of divisions in the international community and a global quadrupling of the terrorism rate since 2001.

Differing levels of personal respect arising from the actions and policies of both the president and the Pope also contributed to the uneasy atmosphere of their tête-à-tête. The pontiff is well aware that Bush has been accused of and is responsible for hundreds of war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, from cluster-bombing innocent villages to torturing and abusing prisoners to dropping missiles on mosques and hospitals to assassinating scores of journalists. Though President Bush has unequivocally invoked the extreme circumstances of a "War on Terrorism" to justify these acts, Pope Benedict has been just as unequivocal in his condemnation of them. At the same time, Bush seems to hold an enormous respect for, as well as attraction to, the Successor of Saint Peter. At a press conference after the meeting, the American head of state said he was "in awe" at the Holy Father, whom he described as "a very smart, loving man". Furthermore, prior to the meeting, Bush had expressed his decision not to argue with the pontiff, telling reporters he would be in a "listening mode"-a rare attitude for this particular president to adopt.

All of these factors combined to shape the high-level diplomatic exchange. Discussing the G-8 summit he had just attended, Bush remarked that it was "successful". Pope Benedict replied, "Successful? You had some decisions? It's not so easy." The dignitaries were referring to the summit of leaders of the eight powerful nations-the US, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Japan-held in Germany the previous week. The assembly had failed to reach agreement on a plan to reduce world poverty, at least in some measure because of opposition from the United States. Then the Pope stated that it was important for the good of humanity that such meetings produce decisions. In his own gentle way, the Pope was disagreeing with the president that the summit was successful and exhorting him to compromise where possible for the benefit of the world as a whole.

Moving on to discuss the worsening problem of world poverty, Bush and Benedict agreed that more aid is needed, especially to Africa. Bush mentioned that the US is doubling its global commitment to fight AIDS from $15 to $30 billion. Nevertheless, in many other areas the US has either cut foreign aid or continues to dole out far less than what the poorest countries need to survive and develop. The leaders recalled with particular concern the humanitarian crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, where for four years the state-sponsored Janjaweed terrorists of an oil-hungry regime have been systematically murdering and displacing the black population. Less than two weeks before his visit with the Pope, Bush announced that the US would apply targeted economic sanctions to the government of Omar al-Bashir in an effort to halt the violence. The Vatican, the African Union, the UN, and grassroots organizations around the world including the Save Darfur Coalition in the United States have all urged the stationing of a multilateral peacekeeping force in Sudan, but the US has maintained a cool attitude toward this proposal.

Another item on the office-bearers' agenda was the desperate position of Christians in Iraq and the Holy Land. In Iraq, "Muslim" terrorists have kidnapped a number of Christian residents, even killing a priest-journalist-Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni-on June 3. Efforts to rebuild the country have been impeded by escalating terrorism and corruption. War and sectarian violence between coalition troops and Muslims have conspired with endemic poverty to put enormous pressure on Iraq's Christian minority. Since the war started in 2003, most Iraqi Christians-700,000 to date-have reluctantly fled the country. The situation of the even more ancient Holy Land Christian community is less dire than that in Iraq but no less worrying for the long term. Caught in the middle of a lengthy struggle between Jews and Muslims for political, economic and military control of the region, and lacking sufficient aid from the outside world, Christians have been slowly fleeing the Palestinian Territories and Israel for more peaceful and secure countries. Pope Benedict is deeply and rightly concerned that these Biblical lands will someday be depleted of living witnesses to Christ. While President Bush assured the pontiff that he shared these concerns, he did not specify what he was doing or could do about the situation either during their meeting or in the presidential press conference which followed.

Benedict expressed to Bush his often-stated hope for "regional" and "negotiated" solutions to the many conflicts now wrenching the Middle East. This was a key point on which the leaders have continually disagreed. The Vatican did not mention President Bush's response to this statement or what discussion, if any, occurred on this topic. Nevertheless, it is well known that Bush has relied heavily on the use of force, fearing that diplomatic engagement gives terrorists an edge in the struggle.

Finally, according to a Vatican statement released soon afterward, the meeting included "an examination of moral and religious questions, including those related to human rights and religious freedom, the defense and promotion of life, marriage and the family, education of new generations and sustainable development."

The issue on which Benedict and Bush have experienced least disagreement is the right to life of every human being. In fact, the Holy See's Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone went out of his way to praise the president for his stance on abortion as well as his "positive initiatives in favor of the defense of life from conception", presumably referring to his tireless efforts to prevent embryonic stem-cell research involving the destruction of human embryos. It seems that Bush's clear opposition to the court-ordered euthanasia of the brain-damaged woman Terri Schiavo in 2005 might also have been remarked, since that controversy happened after Bush's last visit with a Pope in 2004, but the Vatican did not mention this.

It is encouraging that Pope Benedict XVI and President Bush agree on the most fundamental human right of all. At the same time, it is unfortunate that they disagree on almost everything else. It is obvious that the uneasiness of their meeting was a result of time constraints forcing them to shove these important disagreements below the surface. Nonetheless, the two representatives could improve relations significantly if both of them were eager enough to do so. On virtually every foreign policy issue, Pope Benedict's position has been markedly distinct from that of the United States-and drawn severe criticism from American neoconservatives.

Yet the Holy See deserves credit for its impartial drive toward unity and peace for all humankind. In a world where morality has been artificially divided into two incoherent camps-one emphasizing love of God without adequate concern for neighbor, the other emphasizing love of neighbor without reference to God-the Pope wishes to highlight the coherence of loving both God and our neighbor, which together constitute the entire moral law, as the basis for unity and peace among peoples. His magnificent encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) was written to convey this pertinent message.