VATICAN CITY — Many people expect Pope John Paul II will tell President Bush when the two leaders meet June 4 that Bush's policies in the Middle East are not helping the cause of peace.

This expectation is based largely on interviews given to the press in May by Cardinal Pio Laghi, former papal nuncio to the United States — and a friend of George Bush Sr.

Yet U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Jim Nicholson nevertheless believes the president will receive a “gracious welcome” from the Pope.

“The Holy Father has a great deal of respect for the president because of the president's value system,” Nicholson told the Register. “Undoubtedly they will have a discussion about Iraq, about which they had a difference in the beginning, but since then our two entities have been working very closely together on humanitarian relief.”

Bush, who is paying his third visit to the Holy Father since taking office in January 2001, will arrive in the Italian capital in June to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Rome by Allied forces.

The visit had originally involved some organizational difficulties with both the Vatican and the White House having to change their schedules so the visit could take place.

“It's important to recognize that both have made a special effort to meet at this particular moment in history,” said Father Robert Gahl, a professor at the Holy Cross Pontifical University in Rome. “This is not just a pro forma visit — if either were looking to make an excuse not to meet, it would have been easy to do so.”

According to Nicholson, the visit is very “logical,” owing to the president's esteem for the Pope's “service to human dignity” and his “moral authority and wise counsel.”

But the news of the trip came as somewhat of a shock to some.

“I was surprised, given the strength of opposition by the Holy See to the war in Iraq,” said Father Drew Christiansen, associate editor of America magazine and former head of the U.S. bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace. “On other occasions it's been harder to bring the two parties together when the differences were much less.”

Some commentators suggested the visit is simply a photo opportunity ahead of the election this year, while others believe the president is genuinely seeking the Holy Father's advice and consultation.

“The Holy See must have considered the fact that it is taking place in an election year,” Father Christiansen said. “But with still five months to go, the Vatican must nevertheless have thought that perhaps some good things can be gained from it.”

He added that “what the administration is trying to gain from it is unclear” but believed there is still “a lot of common ground” between the Holy See and the White House.

Nicholson said the precise details of the agenda have not yet been set but said the Holy See is “well aware of the president's steadfast position about the sanctity and preciousness of life and the opposition of the United States to human engineering, and our advocacy for a total ban on cloning.”

The Vatican, he said, is “very appreciative of that position.”

But Iraq is still likely to prove to be a sticking point. In an interview with an Italian newspaper in May, Cardinal Laghi said John Paul is likely to drive home issues over the conflict in Iraq and specifically ask the president to stop basing his policies in Iraq and the Holy Land on recourse to force.

Father Gahl, however, does not think there will be any admonishments or finger waving, at least on matters concerning past policy in Iraq.

“The Pope isn't one who holds grudges but rather looks forward as to how to foster a better world,” he said.

Father Gahl believes the Pope might want criteria for military operations to be applied differently in the future.

“[The Holy Father] may take the opportunity to urge the United States to lead an international humanitarian intervention, ready to use force if necessary, in the Sudan,” Father Gahl said. “In the western part of the country there is a possibility of genocide, where geopolitical considerations are such that the international community may prefer to ignore the imminent disaster.”

According to Father Christiansen, there could be “some common ground as the Bush administration begins to look for international help in Iraq, and it may seek the Holy See's support to encourage other countries to be involved in the peacekeeping process.”

Viewing the natural moral law as the foundation of any agreements, John Paul is also said to be likely to encourage the president to implement accords made in international and humanitarian law, and could also raise concerns about religious freedom, especially in China and Russia.

The president, meanwhile, is expected to offer an apology for the abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Bush Converting?

Being his third visit to the Vatican, there is some speculation that the president might be considering joining the Catholic Church.

“It's my prayer that he would enjoy the fullness of the faith,” Father Gahl said. “His father is warm toward the Church and [Bush] certainly desires that the Roman Catholic Church be strong, that it continue to be a voice of moral authority and social assistance.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.