A closer embrace: Washington and the Vatican

A first trip by a president to a papal funeral signals a shift in how the US views Rome.

When George W. Bush boards Air Force One Wednesday for Rome to attend the pope's funeral, it will be a historic moment.

Never before has an American president attended a papal funeral, a signal of how much relations between the United States and the Vatican have evolved since Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in 1978. Some presidential critics are quick to see Mr. Bush's trip as yet another political appeal to religious conservatives in America. But just as easily, it is a journey that any American president would have made, given this pope's historic role in defeating European communism and in raising a global voice for morality during his 26-year reign, analysts say.

And indeed, even as Bush and the late pope seemed at times brothers-in-arms in promoting a "culture of life" - a term Bush took straight from John Paul II's lexicon - their relationship was often punctuated by moments of deep disagreement over issues such as the Iraq war and the death penalty.

Still, the confluence of interests between a born-again Protestant US president and the Roman Catholic Church over central social issues - abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research, euthanasia, and judicial nominations - has left a mark on American politics that is likely to continue under the next pope, analysts say. As seen in the recent turmoil over the life and death of a brain-damaged Florida woman, Terri Schiavo, collaboration between evangelicals and Catholics in promoting common causes has become a potent element of US politics.

So, too, has the involvement of Catholic bishops in US elections, witnessed by the assertion by some last year that Democratic nominee John Kerry, a Catholic, should be denied communion over his support for abortion rights. The fact that Bush won the Catholic vote last November - albeit by a small margin, but still a first for a Republican since the advent of exit polls - is likely to encourage more involvement by clergy in coming elections, political analysts say.

"If the next pope is like John Paul II, I think we'll see the present situation continue," says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron. "For starters, the issues on the right are unlikely to disappear soon."

One of the responses of the more liberal bishops has been to find issues of their own to focus on, such as peacemaking and the death penalty. So it's possible, Professor Green adds, that in the next couple of elections, there could be growing polarization among US Catholics.

In a way, say analysts of Catholic politics, there is no "Catholic vote," per se. Green identifies at least four Catholic votes: the traditional Catholics, a group Bush won handily; middle-of-the-road Catholics, among whom Bush also did well, but more because of the war on terror than social issues; liberal Catholics, which Senator Kerry won by a big margin; and Hispanic Catholics, where Bush also made inroads, but probably based more on their Hispanic heritage than on their faith.

In the end, though, the late John Paul II was able to rise above street-level politics - even as he tackled politically freighted issues head on - and, ironically, it was his above-politics image that made him attractive to US presidents of all political stripes. In 1979, Jimmy Carter became the first (and, to date, only) US president to greet a pope at the White House. President Reagan met with the Pope four times, the first President Bush met him twice, and President Clinton saw him four times.

The current President Bush and his wife, Laura, will be joined by the two immediate past US presidents, along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, representing the US at the Vatican on Friday. All told, some 200 world leaders and several kings will be in attendance, an unprecedented global convergence.

"The thing that makes this papacy different from others is the fact that it's been thrust into the 20th and 21st century," says John Kenneth White, a political scientist at Catholic University. "The pope occupies a world role. He's not just head of the Catholic church, but he's head of a state whose moral authority is something that is sought after by other governments and whose positions are paid attention to by other governments."

In the American context, one point that could add a twist to the future of religious politics is the new campaign by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to fight the death penalty here. That is one area where many evangelicals and Catholics disagree; for some, the "culture of life" embraces innocent life, but not those who have committed capital offenses.

Overall, Americans still strongly support the death penalty, but among Catholics, support is declining, according to recent polling by John Zogby for the USCCB. A CBS News poll from June 2001 showed 68 percent of Catholics supporting the capital punishment, with 27 percent opposing. By November 2004, Zogby International found 48 percent Catholic support and 47 percent in opposition.

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