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The Risks and Rewards of the Pope's Visit to the US

Pope Benedict XVI’s meeting this week with a U.S. president during an election year demonstrates how Americans increasingly tolerate the confluence of religion and politics. While George W. Bush does not face the prospect of reelection this year, his meeting with Pope Benedict may affect the presidential campaign. Bush’s policies have both delighted and disappointed the popes. The president’s opposition to legalized abortion and embryonic stem-cell research earned him praise by John Paul II, but this pope also critiqued Bush and his father for resorting excessively to war in Panama, the Persian Gulf, and Iraq. For Bush, this meeting offers an opportunity to burnish his legacy as a defender of traditional values.

Bush can maximize benefit from this meeting by studying the successes and failures of Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Johnson’s 1965 decision to greet Pope Paul VI strained traditional diplomatic protocol because no pope had previously set foot in the United States. Prior to the pope’s landing in New York in order to deliver a speech at the United Nations, therefore, Johnson arranged elaborate plans to avoid appearing biased in favor of the Catholic Church. The president agreed to wait in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel for Pope Paul VI to visit Johnson’s suite so that the president could deny having initiated the unofficial summit. Johnson certainly hoped such appeals to the pope might have helped his standing among Catholics in an eventual run for reelection. Yet the pope’s public criticisms of U.S. bombing in Southeast Asia contributed to Johnson’s later decision to withdraw from the 1968 presidential campaign.

By contrast, Pope John Paul II boosted Ronald Reagan’s political popularity among Catholics and conservative non-Catholics in the 1980s. Although the U.S. Catholic bishops opposed the construction of nuclear weapons and criticized Reagan’s movement to expand U.S. armaments, John Paul and Reagan shared an uncompromising anticommunism. Meeting with the pope allowed the president to deflect attention from the American Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to his arms buildup. When Reagan appointed an official, full-time ambassador to the Vatican in 1984, the president had established a direct diplomatic line of communication with the pope, and subverted the American bishops. Reagan showed none of Johnson’s protocol concerns when deciding to stay an extra night in Alaska to coordinate an informal meeting with the pope, whose plane arrived the next day, in May 1984, a year in which a majority of Catholics voted to help him win reelection.

In the most analogous case with George Bush’s position this year, Bill Clinton met with John Paul II in 1999 as a second term president unable to run again for reelection. Absent the Cold War, Clinton aggressively pursued common cause with Pope John Paul II in other areas. Due to Clinton’s unapologetic support of legalized abortion and artificial contraception, the policies of this president clashed with the pope’s absolute opposition to late-term, or “partial-birth” abortions. Yet Clinton sought closer connections between U.S. and Vatican economic assistance programs while the Republican congress planned to curtail funding for foreign aid. The Catholic Church also endorsed Clinton’s ambitions to provide government assistance to the poor and immigrants. These efforts may have helped Clinton obtain the meeting and photo opportunity with John Paul II at the same time as two Papal Knights in Congress (House Judiciary Committee Chairperson Henry J. Hyde and his legal counsel David P. Shippers) prepared the case for the president’s eventual impeachment.

Since George W. Bush cannot legally compete in the 2008 presidential election, Pope Benedict may have more to gain or lose than the president in this year’s papal-presidential meeting. Some reports indicate that the pope will court controversy by highlighting abortion in this presidential election year visit to the United States. If so, many Americans will charge the pope with a partisan appeal which threatens America’s recent tolerance for Catholicism and church-state cooperation. If Benedict addresses respect for immigrants and the poor, as well as the unborn, however, he can avoid the appearance of favoring one political party platform over another.