George Bush is certainly not the first American president to try and take advantage of a timely papal meeting to advance himself and his agenda.
Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives today for a high-profile visit to the United States, took his name from Pope Benedict XV, who consulted with Woodrow Wilson when the 28th president was touring Europe with the purpose of promoting a League of Nations.
Bush has no such grand design.
The current president is merely hoping that – by greeting the current Pope Benedict at Andrews Air Force Base, inviting 12,000 people to an outdoor reception with the pontiff and then hosting a Bavarian dinner for the visitor from the Vatican – his own dismal approval ratings might be improved by association with a reasonably popular religious leader.
The initiative has been somewhat complicated by the fact that Pope Benedict will not attend the dinner.
But that won’t stop Bush by attempting to bask in the papal glow.
Perhaps the president should try a different approach.
Instead of posing with the pontiff he might want to listen to what this particular pope has to say about global warming, fighting poverty and, above all, promoting peace.
No one is going to confuse Pope Benedict with the caricature of a liberal.
But the pontiff has made the Vatican a leader is seeking to address climate change. Under this pope’s leadership, the Vatican announced that it would become the world’s first carbon-neutral state.
He has said that the leaders of the world must do much more to feed the poor, fight disease and support the interests of workers rather than the bottom lines of corporations.
And he has bluntly said that Bush’s preemptive attack on Iraq and the subsequent occupation of that country does not follow the Catholic doctrine of a “just war.”
Before the invasion, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was asked whether the attack might be considered morally justified under the just-war standard. “Certainly not,” he replied, explaining that “the damage would be greater than the values one hopes to save.”
After the war began, Cardinal Ratzinger said of the global protest movement to prevent the attack: “it was right to resist the war and its threats of destruction.”
Rejecting arguments made by the president and many of his supporters that the United States needed to take the lead, this pope argued, “It should never be the responsibility of just one nation to make decisions for the world.”
It is not secret that George Bush has trouble taking the counsel of those who do not tell him what he wants to hear.
But if this president wants to associate himself with the pope, he should begin by listening to the man who has said, “There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a ‘just war.'”
Of course, no rational observer is going to think that George Bush will be led by Pope Benedict XVI to pacifism. But Bush cannot claim to be taking this papal visit seriously if he will not even entertain a discussion of just and unjust wars.