President Bush and Pope John Paul II spoke often about their desire to spread freedom and a culture of life around the world. Yet their visions for accomplishing these lofty goals sometimes sharply conflicted.
Bush, who flew to Rome yesterday to become the first sitting U.S. president to attend the funeral of a pope, has told aides that he deeply admired the pontiff's refusal to bend to societal pressures on controversial issues, including on the Vatican's opposition to the Iraq war. The president considered the pope's resolve "awe-inspiring, especially in a world where people shift around, sometimes with the wind," a senior White House official said. "He was a rock."
Bush found inspiration for his policies, aides said, in stories of the pope's lifelong crusade to fight totalitarianism in Europe and to demand that people live and worship in freedom everywhere. Those who know Bush best said the pope's role in defeating communism in Poland influenced the president's thinking about targeting tyranny and spreading democracy in the Middle East today.
"In his visits to our country, the pope spoke of our 'providential' Constitution, the self-evident truths about human dignity in our Declaration, and the 'blessings of liberty' that follow from them," Bush said shortly after the pope's death. "It is these truths, he said, that have led people all over the world to look to America with hope and respect."
The relationship between Bush and the pope, their views on America and its use of power, and even on what it means to promote a culture of life, were often much more complicated, however. Not only did the pope emerge as a leading critic of Bush's preemptive military policy, particularly in Iraq, but he also differed on international law, the death penalty and stem cell research.
In the pope's life and death, Bush chose to focus on what he considers their shared values system, including opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and their common agenda to fight for liberty and religious freedom worldwide.
Bush yesterday led a delegation that consisted of former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, as well as first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to pay final tribute to John Paul II in Rome. The group knelt in front of the pope's body at St. Peter's Basilica for about six minutes, praying in silence.
"I don't fancy myself a theologian, but his love of Christ, his adherence to spiritual values, these things meant a lot," the president's father said yesterday.
Although the president never showed hesitation in public about attending the funeral, he did have reservations, according to Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). "We actually talked a couple of months ago about whether he [Bush] was going to go to the funeral," Santorum said in an interview this week. "He said 'I really want to go, but I'm not too sure I want to set a precedent. Because no president has ever been to a pope's funeral before, so I have to think about it.' "
Bush, a Methodist and among the most overtly religious presidents of modern time, has courted the pope since the early days of his administration, quoting the pontiff in numerous speeches, meeting with him three times and awarding him the Medal of Freedom. Although Bush and the pope disagreed on several policies, Roman Catholics in the United States have warmed to Bush, with a majority of them voting for him in 2004.
The pope saw himself as a "conviction theologian," while Bush considers himself a "conviction politician," said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Nothing seemed to animate their purpose more than promoting the importance of faith and fostering a culture of life, an ambiguous term that has come to stand for protecting an individual from conception to death.
"He is never more eloquent than when he speaks of the culture of life," Bush said at the March 22, 2001, dedication of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington. Meeting with Bush at the Vatican on June 4, the pope said: "I also continue to follow with great appreciation your commitment to the promotion of moral values in American society, particularly with regard to respect for life and family."
Both oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, although Bush has never commented on whether he considers either as sinful, as the Vatican does. But on another life issue, the death penalty, the two men diverge sharply: The pope opposed it and personally appealed to Bush when he was governor to spare the life of convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker, who was executed in 1998; Bush, who continues to support the death penalty, oversaw the execution of 152 people in Texas, the most of any U.S. governor in modern history.
Jim Nicholson, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, told Fox News Sunday that, in his final conversation with the pope a few weeks ago, John Paul II said that he "admired greatly" Bush's "value system" and inquired about "what we in America wanted to do now with our power and the expression and use of this power that we had." Indeed, no issue divided the president and the pope more than the use of U.S. power, especially the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
"Violence and weapons can never resolve the problems of man," the pope told employees of the Catholic television station Telepace shortly after the U.S. bombing of Baghdad.
Two years later, media coverage of Bush's visit to the Vatican was dominated by the pope's lamentation on the "grave unrest" in Iraq and the Middle East. "You are very familiar with the unequivocal position of the Holy See in this regard, expressed in numerous documents, through direct and indirect contacts, and in the many diplomatic efforts which have been made," the pope told Bush on June 4.
The president, speaking a few minutes later, glossed over the debate on Iraq and emphasized the fight for freedom. "We recognize the power of freedom to change societies and to change the world," he said.
Since the war, Bush has increasingly focused on this shared commitment to liberty, noting in this year's State of the Union address how the road of providence leads to freedom, much as he told students in Poland in 2001 that the pope's triumph over communism was no mere coincidence.
"Here communism was humbled by the largest citizens' movement in history, and by the iron purpose and moral vision of a single man: Pope John Paul II," Bush told the students and faculty of Poland's Warsaw University on June 15, 2001. "In all these events, we have seen the character of the Polish people, and the hand of God in your history."
Staff writer Mark Leibovich contributed to this report.