Pope John Paul II has been looking forward to a private conversation with President Bush since before the Iraq war started, and Vatican insiders say he plans to give the American president a piece of his mind.
Bush will be in Italy on Friday to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Rome by Allied forces on June 4, 1944. As part of his visit he will have a private audience with the pope before meeting with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and continuing on to France for D-Day celebrations over the weekend.
John Paul spoke out publicly against the war more than any other world leader and in the months leading up to the conflict the Vatican became a diplomatic stage for all the parties involved.
Back then the pope’s pleas fell on deaf ears at the White House, and even his personal envoy, Cardinal Pio Laghi, was given short shrift. But now the pope has a chance to talk to the president face to face, and Bush will be forced to listen.
Like all of his audiences with visiting dignitaries, their one-on-one will be private. All staffers will leave the room and the two men will be alone.
Only the two of them will know what was really said behind closed doors, though typically the highlights are summarized by their respective press secretaries for the media.
Publicly, they will both read written statements after the private meeting, and though the tone of these remarks is usually very respectful, the pope has been known to make strong statements when he wants to make a point.
Pope’s beliefs are clear
Although we cannot know what the pope will say to the president in private, we know where he stands on the issues.
John Paul said the war was not justifiable because preventive war is not self-defense. The pope was adamant that diplomatic avenues had not been exhausted when Bush made his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein.
Last week the pope publicly condemned torture as an affront to human dignity. The pope’s statements were seen as a veiled reference to the American abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.
Some Bush Republicans who remembered the pope’s support of the first Iraq war were surprised by his condemnation of the current war, but the rescue of the invaded Kuwaiti people by a worldwide coalition was seen very differently by the Catholic Church.
Where many conservatives in America share the pope’s views on abortion and contraception, their opinions diverge when it comes to the death penalty and military action.
John Paul was also very critical of the sanctions imposed on Iraq following the Gulf War in 1991. He repeatedly called for them to be lifted because they were causing the Iraqi people to suffer, and not their leadership.
The Holy See maintained a diplomatic relationship with Saddam’s government until it’s downfall, and Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz met with the pope in a last-ditch effort to avert the invasion.
Bush will be respectful of pope’s position
For his part, Bush as always will be respectful of the pope’s position, but will undoubtedly try to shore up support for the U.S. mission in Iraq.
In an interview with Italian television before he left Washington, Bush said, "Look, a lot of people didn't like the war. I understand that completely. And I don't like war."
"I will tell his Holy Father I appreciate his positions — he is a great man — and that I look forward to working with the Iraqis to put in place the conditions so that human rights prevail, something that didn't happen under Saddam Hussein," said Bush.
President Bush also will award the pope the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award, a U.S. official said Thursday.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the pontiff was being honored for "years of fighting for freedom and for his important moral voice."
In November the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bipartisan resolution to encourage Bush to give the 84-year-old Roman Catholic leader the medal for his contribution to the fall of communism and his defense of freedom throughout the world.
The recent history is still fresh enough to influence the conversation between these two men, but John Paul has always been more concerned about the future than the past.
His mission has always been one of peace, and he’ll probably do his best to make this meeting a stepping stone in that direction.