Despite wearing his Christianity on his sleeve, President George W. Bush appears to be damned if he does and damned if he doesn't when it comes to the world's most important Christian leader, Pope John Paul II.
When Bush rejected the Vatican's moral criticism of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq a year ago, he was criticized for not listening to the pope. Now, however, that Bush has solicited the Vatican's help on 'culture of life' issues, especially the anti-gay marriage push, he's blasted for mixing religion with politics.
This perhaps goes to show that where one draws the line on church/state separation often has a lot to do with what one thinks of whatever the church, or the state, has to say.
I recently broke the story that in a June 4 meeting with senior Vatican officials (not in his private encounter with John Paul II the same day), Bush, according to a Vatican source, said that 'not all the American bishops are with me' on cultural issues. My sources said the president particularly had in mind a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The report triggered umbrage from critics who believe that Bush crossed a line by requesting political help from a foreign religious leader. For anyone familiar with the history of relations between the United States and the Vatican, however, this feels rather like Captain Louis Renault's being 'shocked' to find gambling at Rick's.
For example, during the Second World War President Franklin Roosevelt sent Myron Taylor as his personal representative to the Vatican. In the recent book Inside the Vatican of Pius XII, diaries kept by Taylor's aide, Harold Tittman, reveal that Tittman once met with the head of the Jesuits, Fr. Vladimir Ledochowski, who warned that certain U.S. bishops might have pro-Axis sympathies. He had in mind Cardinal William O'Connell of Boston and Archbishop John Timothy McNicholas of Cincinnati, two Irishmen who felt ambivalent about the United States backing their traditional enemies, the British. The episode amounts to a mirror image of the Bush story, since Ledochowski, an informal conduit for Vatican views, was suggesting that the U.S. government should get American bishops on board with the president's policies.
Another example: It was President Ronald Reagan who convinced the Senate to establish full diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1984. Part of his logic was to use Rome as leverage against the U.S. bishops, since Reagan felt the bishops were drifting too far to the left on nuclear deterrence and the economy, and he worried that they might undercut American Catholic support for his agenda.
The political dimension to U.S./Vatican ties is hardly surprising. The pope is not just another foreign head of state, but the supreme authority of a church with 65 million adherents in the United States. Though American Catholics rarely vote as a block, presidents dare not ignore them. This has never been more true than today, when Catholics are over-represented in the key battleground states that determine presidential winners and losers.
The pope is also the world's preeminent voice of conscience, and American presidents, who like to wrap their policies in moral language, often seek his support, or at least try to avoid his opposition. The Clinton administration, for example, tried to make a deal with the Vatican prior to United Nations conferences in the mid-1990s on women and reproductive rights. This was not just multilateral diplomacy; the White House was worried about alienating domestic Catholic opinion. (In the end these efforts came to naught, and relations between Clinton and the Vatican soured).
So why do some critics find Bush's request, as one put it, "mind-boggling?"
We're in election season, and everything that Bush does is seen through the lens of partisan politics. Hence his comment about some bishops not being with him is seen less as a president's appeal for support on moral issue, than a politician's craven attempt to win votes. The Bush people understand this, which is why a White House spokesperson recently said that the president knows the Holy Father "is not a political figure, and would not try to turn him into one."
It's a pious sentiment, but not fully honest. Popes are indeed spiritual figures, but their spiritual stands have political consequences. When presidents feel they're aligned with the pope, it's natural that they look to him for support, including tactical considerations with domestic political implications.
Anyone whose mind is boggled by this should find another spectator sport.