President Bush praised Pope Benedict XVI yesterday as a "man of great wisdom and knowledge," and Republicans and Democrats lauded the election of a pontiff who is likely to assume a prominent role in debates over abortion, same-sex marriage and war.
"He is a man who serves the Lord," Bush said in a short statement to reporters yesterday afternoon. "We remember well his sermon at the pope's funeral in Rome, how his words touched our hearts and the hearts of millions. We join with our fellow citizens and millions around the world who pray for continued strength and wisdom as His Holiness leads the Catholic Church."
Bush, who became the first U.S. president to attend a pope's funeral when he led a delegation to John Paul II's service, will not return to Rome for Sunday's Mass celebrating the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the 265th pope.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Benedict had "earned the trust and respect of Pope John Paul II, who did God's work here on Earth, seeking peace and justice for all," adding she hopes the new pope "will build on that legacy."
As John Paul showed, the pope often plays a significant role in the political, as well as the religious, life of millions of Americans, including prominent politicians. Bush often cited John Paul when talking about efforts to limit abortions, fight religious persecution and spread freedom around the world. At the same time, Bush's critics often trumpeted the pope's opposition to the Iraq war and the death penalty to attack the president's policies.
Although Republicans and Democrats were quick to praise Benedict's election, the new pope's opposition to abortion, homosexuality, contraception and larger role for women in the church are certain to stir more debate in the United States.
With both parties focused on appealing to religious voters, especially the large number of Catholics, politicians and lawmakers are acutely sensitive to the concerns of Roman Catholics and their leadership in Rome, in particular the pope.
A total of 155 senators and representatives -- nearly 30 percent of Congress -- are Roman Catholic, according to a database kept by Congressional Quarterly.
Even lawmakers whose social views clash with those emphasized by the church issued laudatory statements about the new pontiff.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a Roman Catholic, was criticized by many church leaders during last year's presidential campaign for supporting abortion rights, with some bishops saying they would deny him the sacrament of Holy Communion. Yesterday, Kerry said the election represents "a great moment of hope, renewal and possibility for the Catholic Church."
"Like all Catholics, Teresa and I pray for the Holy Father, extend our hopes for the church, and hope that Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate will touch the world in the same way Pope John Paul II did," he said.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) acknowledged that he disagrees with many of the conservative views of the incoming Holy Father but said in an interview, "He's good enough for the cardinals. Who am I to complain?"
Dingell said Benedict "has hideous problems to address," including the shortage of priests and issues of social justice. "My personal feelings, speaking with profound ignorance here, is he will have much the same views on social issues and faith and morals," said Dingell, who attends Mass in Dearborn, Mich., and at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said lawmakers should not expect the Vatican to temper its views on divisive social issues under Benedict. "Europe and North America are an increasingly smaller part of the Catholic Church and unfortunately, we're a marginalized part of the church because they are tending to stray from the traditional beliefs of the church," he told CNN. "So I think what you saw is an affirmation by the cardinals that the church is not going to change, even though maybe Europe and North America want it to. It is going to stay the way it has been for 2,000 years."