The pope and the prez

U.S. President George W. Bush welcomes Pope Benedict XVI to a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House April 16. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)Some people would hesitate to quote St. Augustine to Pope Benedict XVI. Not President George W. Bush.

Granted, he limited his citation to the words “Pax tecum” (“Peace be with you”) so it wasn’t exactly an academic exhibition.

Throughout his welcoming talk yesterday, it struck some of us that the president was sounding a lot like the pope. He spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism” and the common moral law written into every human heart, and said the measure of a free society is “how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable among us” — all key themes of this pope.

The president seemed sincere in his admiration for the concepts he was borrowing. That was evident in the way he leaped to his feet after the pope’s own talk and told the pontiff, in less exalted language: “Thank you, your Holiness, Awesome speech. We’re gonna sit down for one more song.”

 

 

The scene reminded me of Bush’s visit to the Vatican last year. When he arrived, he recognized one of the welcoming Vatican functionaries, slapped him on the back and said, “Hey, I know this big guy.” Somehow even in the stuffy Vatican, the president’s air of familiarity went over just fine.

On the South Lawn of the White House, there seemed no doubt that the pope and president were on the same wavelength. Complete with fife and drum corps, the event was a set piece of patriotic Americana, and the pope seemed to be blessing Bush’s vision of an essentially religious and moral America.

Of course, when it comes to details and particular policies, the pope and the Vatican are sometimes at odds with the United States. But this was not the moment for highlighting differences. One reason, as explained to me by a high Vatican official before the trip, is that the Bush term is almost over. The Vatican, he said, doesn’t see much point in engaging in a far-ranging discussion with this administration because “there won’t really be any follow-up or implementation.”

Maybe that’s why the private meeting between pope and president lasted less than 20 minutes. This was a day for public impressions, not private policy discussions.

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