WASHINGTON — The leader of the world's Roman Catholics has been to theWhite House only once in history. That changes this week, and PresidentBush is pulling out all the stops: driving out to a military base tomeet Pope Benedict XVI's plane, bringing a giant audience to the SouthLawn and hosting a fancy East Room dinner.
These are all firsts.
Bush has never before given a visiting leader the honor of picking himup at the airport. In fact, no president has done so at Andrews AirForce Base, the typical landing spot for modern leaders.
A crowd of up to 12,000 is due at the White House on Wednesday morningfor the pope's official, pomp-filled arrival ceremony. It will featurethe U.S. and Holy See anthems, a 21-gun salute, and the U.S. Army OldGuard Fife and Drum Corps. Both men will make remarks before their OvalOffice meeting and a send-off for his popemobile down PennsylvaniaAvenue.
The White House crowd will be the largest of Bush's presidency.
The evening festivities will mark the first time the Bushes have put ona high-profile meal in honor of someone who isn't even a guest.Wednesday is the pontiff's 81st birthday, and the menu celebrates hisGerman heritage with Bavarian-style food.
But Benedict's prayer service that evening with U.S. bishops at a famedWashington basilica preclude him from coming to the dinner.
Meanwhile, several groups have planned vigils, demonstrations and news conferences to press their causes.
Gay Catholic activists, who plan to demonstrate Tuesday along the papalmotorcade route in Washington, have compiled a list of statements byBenedict during his career which they consider hostile to gays andlesbians. These include forceful denunciations of gay marriage and ofadoption rights for same-sex couples.
For many American Catholics, the most distressing church-related issueof recent years has been clerical sex abuse. Thousands of molestationallegations have been filed against Catholic clergy, and dioceses havepaid out more than $2 billion in claims since 1950.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of thoseAbuse by Priests, said his advocacy group would not be mollified evenif the pope meets privately with abuse victims.
The president explained the special treatment he plans for the pope — particularly the airport greeting.
"One, he speaks for millions. Two, he doesn't come as a politician; hecomes as a man of faith," Bush told the EWTN Global Catholic Network inan interview aired Friday. He added that he wanted to honor Benedict'sconviction that "there's right and wrong in life, that moral relativismhas a danger of undermining the capacity to have more hopeful and freesocieties."
The Bush-Benedict get-together will be the 25th meeting between a pope and a sitting president.
The first did not come until shortly after the end of World War I, whenWoodrow Wilson was received at the Vatican by Pope Benedict XV in 1919.The next wasn't for 40 more years, when President Eisenhower saw PopeJohn XXIII in Rome. President Carter hosted the first White House visitby a pope, when John Paul II came on Oct. 6, 1979.
Since then, such audiences have become a must-do. Every president hasmet with the pope at least once, often more. This week makes Bush therecord-holder, with a total of five meetings with two popes.
There are more than 64 million reasons for this. Catholics numbernearly one-quarter of the U.S. population, making them a desirableconstituency for politicians to court. Worldwide, there are now anestimated 1 billion Roman Catholics.
"The pope represents not just the Catholic Church but the possibilityof moral argument in world affairs and it is very important forAmerican presidents to rub up against that from time to time," saidGeorge Weigel, a Catholic theologian and biographer of Pope John PaulII.
The Vatican — seat of a government as well as a religious headquarters — has an interest, too.
"It wants to be a player in world affairs, and everyone understandsthat to do that you have to be in conversation with the United States,"said John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the independent NationalCatholic Reporter.
On social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research, Bush and Benedict have plenty of common ground.
But they disagree over the war in Iraq, just as Bush did with Benedict's predecessor, John Paul.
When Benedict was a cardinal before the 2003 invasion, the now-pontiffcategorically dismissed the idea that a preventive strike against Iraqcould be justified under Catholic doctrine. In his Easter message lastyear, Benedict said "nothing positive comes from Iraq."
Benedict told Bush at their first meeting last summer at the Vaticanthat he was concerned about "the worrisome situation in Iraq." Bushcharacterized the pontiff's concerns as mostly limited to the treatmentof the Christian minority in Muslim-majority Iraq. The statement out ofthe Vatican suggested a broader discussion.
Weigel predicted talks this time would be focused almost entirely there.
Prominent Christians have been slain in Iraq in recent weeks and tensof thousands of Iraqi Christians are believed to have fled the countrybecause of attacks and threats. "The Vatican is a very adult place," hesaid. "The arguments of five years ago are over."
The current pope's approach may be softer than that of John Paul, whoturned from Bush's presentation to him of the Medal of Freedom in 2004to read a statement about his "grave concern" over events in Iraq. ButBenedict is no less committed to the church's stand on issues such asabortion, stem cells and the death penalty, as well as war.
In fact, the death penalty is another area of long-held disagreement,with Bush a strong supporter. Benedict also speaks forcefully againstpunitive immigration laws and the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, andfor environmental protection and social welfare — all in ways thatoften run counter to Bush administration policies.
But differences between popes and presidents are nothing new.
John Paul and former President Clinton clashed — with strikingly sharp Vatican statements — on abortion.
Also, the church's opposition to almost any war but self-defensive ones has been a persistent theme in U.S. relations.
Pope Paul VI wanted to help mediate an end to the Vietnam War. JohnPaul also urged President Reagan against the arms race and spoke outvigorously against the Persian Gulf war under the current president'sfather. All these urgings, like the current anti-Iraq argument, were tono avail.
"Modern popes have seen themselves as voices of conscience andpeacemakers," Allen said. "U.S. administrations haven't always beenexcited for them to play that role."
Weighty discussions aside, the talks with Bush are not likely to be themost-remembered or most influential part of the pontiff's six-day,two-city U.S. tour, Weigel said. That is expected to come when Benedictaddresses the United Nations on Friday.
"I think it's nice they're going to meet. They have a lot of things totalk about," he said. "But the notion that the world operates by thebig guys getting together and cutting a deal is wrong."