On April 16, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI will mark his 81st birthday with, among other things, a visit to the White House — only the second such visit by a pope in American history.
There, he will sit down with President George W. Bush, who will have welcomed him the day before at Andrews Air Force Base.
The New York Times and National Public Radio can be expected to run analyses focusing on how this president and this Pope disagree on the war in Iraq, just as they did in every story they ran on President Bush and the late Pope John Paul II.
They will indeed have a very good point. The president’s critics, however, will play up this angle to the exclusion of almost all else.
In fact, the big story between this president and this Pope — as it was with this president and the last Pope — has been their remarkable unity on the sanctity and dignity of human life.
Neither man majored in math in college, but they easily understand that 1,000 tragic deaths per year among enlisted soldiers in an American military operation is a smaller number than 1 million deaths per year among innocent babies in American abortion businesses.
(A truly illuminating article would be an analysis of why The New York Times and NPR are silent on the latter matter.)
It is because of their mutual commitment to a culture of Life — words that Bush himself has used — that this will be a pleasant meeting, not a hostile one.
There will not be the uneasy Kodak moments like at Denver’s International Stapleton Airport on Aug. 12, 1993, where Pope John Paul II, beside President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and in front of a huge crowd, told the “pro-choice” president, his spouse and his country that all of the “great causes” led by the United States “will have meaning only to the extent that you guarantee the right to life and protect the human person.”
The Clintons were made quite uncomfortable by that unwelcome message, as they were on similar occasions down the road each time the Pope lectured them on the abomination of abortion.
That was not the case with John Paul II and Bill Clinton’s successor: President George W. Bush had immense respect for Pope John Paul II, whom he called a “great man,” a “great world leader,” a “rare man” and a “hero of history.”
In a July 2001 news conference in Rome, Bush spoke effusively of this “extraordinary man” and his “profound impact on the world.”
“I’m not poetic enough to describe what it’s like to be in his presence,” said the president of the Pope.
In a speech in Warsaw, Bush told the Polish people that communism in their land was “humbled” by two forces — a massive citizens’ movement and “the iron purpose and moral vision of a single man: Pope John Paul II.”
Also, in June 2004, Bush awarded John Paul America’s highest honor — the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
All of this, of course, occurred despite the widely reported differences between the two men over the Iraq situation.
Like Pope John Paul II before him, Pope Benedict XVI knows that the man in Rome and the man in the Oval Office have frequently parted ways on foreign policy and the question of going to war.
Yet, while the Vatican might think the White House is wrong on a dictator in a palace, it hopes and prays that the president will get it right on the defenseless in the womb. And when it comes to that, no president has been as solid as George W. Bush — on judges, legislation, executive orders, you name it.
From the outset, before he ever stepped foot into the Oval Office, Bush, as mere president-elect, held a private talk with abortion advocate Colin Powell, several weeks before naming Powell secretary of state.
He told Powell that as secretary of state he would be expected to purge any vestiges of the Clinton State Department’s program to promote global abortion rights. Powell told Bush that he understood and would follow his lead.
The change on abortion was immediate: On his first day in office, Bush authorized a ban on all U.S. funding of international abortion rights groups, reversing President Clinton’s previous executive order. It was a harbinger of the two terms of pro-life actions to come.
Further, George W. Bush also understands — are you listening, John McCain? — that being pro-life includes not only rejecting abortion but embryonic stem-cell research. He has spoken and acted eloquently on this and other life issues.
To cite just one example, from April 2002, Bush remarked:
“As we seek to improve human life, we must always preserve human dignity. … Advances in biomedical technology must never come at the expense of human conscience. As we seek what is possible, we must always ask what is right, and we must not forget that even the most noble ends do not justify any means. Science has set before us decisions of immense consequence. We can pursue medical research with a clear sense of moral purpose or we can travel without an ethical compass into a world we could live to regret. … Life is a creation, not a commodity. Our children are gifts to be loved and protected, not products to be designed and manufactured.”
Bush warned Americans of “a society in which human beings are grown for spare body parts, and children are engineered to custom specifications. … That’s not acceptable.”
The United States of America is the world’s most influential nation. The Catholic Church is the world’s most influential church. Abortion is the world’s most destructive force, and one that must be stopped, not encouraged — the leader of America and the Catholic Church, mercifully, agree on that.
When Pope Benedict celebrates his birthday with President Bush at the White House on April 16, he will be happy to be celebrating with a kindred spirit who also celebrates life.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. He is the author of God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life (2004), and, most recently, The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).