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  Home :: 2007 October :: The Pope Versus the President
The Pope Versus the President

The Vatican's recent snub of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice isonly the latest salvo in the battle between Pope Benedict XVI andPresident George W. Bush. This tug of war has profound implications forboth U.S. foreign policy and the critical Catholic vote in 2008'spresidential race.

Overlapping Agendas

Thingshaven't always been tense between Bush and Benedict. They share similarviews regarding abortion, gay marriage, and other hot-buttonconservative issues. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (as Benedict was knownbefore becoming Pope in April 2005) even helped Bush secure the WhiteHouse for a second term.

Specifically, after Bush visited theVatican in June 2004, complaining that "Not all the American bishopsare with me," Ratzinger sent a letter to US bishops, ordering them torefuse Communion to "a Catholic politician … consistently campaigningand voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws" - athinly-veiled reference to John Kerry. Ratzinger added that any personeven voting for this Catholic politician "would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion." Probably no surprise, then, that Bush increased his margin among Catholics by 6% from 2000 to 2004.

In an interesting twist, Ratzinger also partnered with George W. Bush's brother Neil in a foundation "to promote ecumenical understanding and publishoriginal religious texts" in 1999. Oddly enough, business creditreports listed the foundation as a "management trust for purposes otherthan education, religion, charity or research," leaving the true natureof the Neil Bush/Cardinal Ratzinger venture unclear.

In 2005,Ratzinger was named as a defendant in a U.S. lawsuit suit accusing himof conspiring to cover up the sexual abuse of minors. At the center ofthe controversy was a May 2001 confidential letter he had sent Catholicbishops across the world ordering them to keep evidence of the sexualabuse of minors by clergy secret until 10 years after the child hadreached adult status.

Soon after becoming Pope, however, Ratzinger was dismissed from the case. A US federal judge decided the lawsuit would be "incompatible with the United States' foreign policy interests."

Disagreements Multiply

Onmany contentious issues since then, Pope Benedict XVI has disagreedwith the Bush administration's policies, but only politely andindirectly. For example, Benedict has spoken in favor of theInternational Atomic Energy Agency, which is often at loggerheads withBush administration foreign policy.

Similarly, Benedict's Vaticanhas taken a firm stance against global warming, even acquiring a carbonoffset forest to make the Vatican the "first entirely carbon neutral sovereign state."He has called for greater international co-operation to fight ozonedepletion, yet not overtly criticized White House foot-dragging in thatarea.

The gloves came off, however, regarding the war in Iraq. In a May 2003 interview, Ratzinger said, " There was not sufficient reasons to unleash a war in Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that makepossible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today weshould be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the veryexistence of a 'just war.'"

The U.S. invasion of Iraq was similarly contentious for former PopeJohn Paul II, who sent a special envoy to the White House in March 2003in an effort to prevent an attack. The papal envoy's pleas fell on deaf ears.

Vaticancriticisms of the Bush administration's military intervention in Iraqhave continued unabated. French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of thePontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, told an Italianmagazine in August 2007, "The facts speak for themselves. Alienatingthe international community (with the U.S. push for war) was amistake." Tauran, who has referred to the invasion and occupation as a "crime against peace," also said that Christians in Iraq "paradoxically, were more protected under the dictatorship" of Saddam Hussein.

Rice Rebuffed

Assuch, it is perhaps unsurprising that Benedict failed to honorSecretary of State Condoleezza Rice's urgent request for a privatemeeting last month. The Italian periodical Corriere della Sera reportedthat Rice was hoping to capitalize on the Pope's moral authority byhaving a papal audience focused on the Middle East. Instead, Rice wastold that Benedict was on holiday and had to settle for a telephoneconversation with a lower Vatican official.

The ongoing tensionsbetween Bush and Benedict over Iraq put America's over 75 million RomanCatholics in a tricky position for 2008. By supporting candidateshawkish on the Bush administration's Iraq policies, are they defyingthe Pope and the Catholic Church?

For its part, the powerfulUnited States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has taken a firmstance against the US presence in Iraq. A July 2007 letter to HouseRepublican Leader John Boehner (R-OH), USCCB noted, "The current situation in Iraq is unacceptable and unsustainable,as is the policy and political stalemate among decision makers inWashington … our nation must have the moral courage to change course inIraq."

Dissent is swelling up from the grassroots as well. InAugust 2007, an alliance of religious groups calling itself Catholicsfor an End to War collected 10,000 signatures for an online petition"urging leaders to commit to a responsible withdrawal of U.S. troops."Sister Simone Campbell of the national Catholic social justice lobbyNETWORK said, "Church leaders and individual Catholics have opposedU.S. policy in Iraq since before the war began," adding that thepetition "lets thousands of Catholics unite to speak out even more strongly for an end to the violence and occupation."

Inother words, being dovish on Iraq might help the next Democraticpresidential contender win Roman Catholic votes. Whether the currentfront-runners qualify for that distinction, however, is another matter.


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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia