Pope Benedict arrived in Maryland amidst much fanfare and a presidential greeting at the airport. He met briefly with President Bush in private, and a White House reception is planned for Wednesday. Said spokeswoman Dana Perino at a White House briefing beforehand, "I really don't think that the president is planning to spend a lot of time talking about the issues of Iraq with the pope."
It is funny to imagine all the other topics that Mr Bush would rather not discuss with the Pope. He would prefer not to touch on his role as the most prolific death penalty enforcer among all governors in American history. He hopes to avoid talking about the incongruous stance he has taken on stem cell research, first boasting that he was the first president to fund this research and then vetoing legislation to further fund it--while surrounded by children born by in vitro fertilization, itself an outgrowth of very similar research.
Mr Bush would rather not dwell on the dramatic growth in the number of people without health insurance in the US, particularly after Families USA produced a study this week suggesting that 50 people die every day in the US for lack of health insurance. Projections from the Institutes of Medicine have suggested an excess mortality approaching 165,000 deaths over the course of the Bush Administration, which has twice vetoed expanded health coverage for uninsured children this past year.
On the surface, Mr Bush might enjoy talking with the Pope about abortion, except for the fact that progress against abortion has slowed by more than half since he took office, compared with the previous Clinton Administration. Mr Bush's Republican allies have enjoyed labeling many Democrats as being "pro-abortion" because they oppose making it illegal. But by this logic, Mr Bush is himself strongly "pro-torture," since he opposes making torture illegal. The Catholic Church has taken an emphatic, principled stance against all use of torture, as have most retired intelligence officers and former members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (they say it's both immoral and not effective).
Why is Mr Bush so intent on associating with the Pope? It seems clear that Mr Bush would like to be viewed as being "a member of the club"-- in this case, the Catholic club. He recognizes that Catholics are the nation's most important swing voters, being concentrated in the swing states and somewhat conflicted over the Church's social issues/compassion duality. Mr Bush is willing to overlook most of what Pope Benedict asserts, in the interest of appearing at his side and appealing to many of the Pope's American Catholic friends.
On an oddly-related note, Senator Barack Obama is in trouble for intimating that some people who find themselves in overwhelming economic circumstances may turn to guns or bigotry or religion as sources of solace. Holding a gun, by its nature, makes someone feel more important than the unarmed people around them. Looking down on others because of their race or national origin can be temporarily empowering to some. But perhaps what Sen Obama meant when he unconsciously slipped "religion" into that list was the way that certain people use religion to exalt themselves and to proclaim their own piety, as a means of separating themselves from others. This form of religion has little to do with personal spirituality, or generosity toward the plight of the less fortunate.
Is it moral to join a church because it makes one feel better than others, or because it makes one appear more moral than one's adversaries? Can someone claim to be a disciple of Christ, while ignoring most of what Christ preaches about poverty and war in the Gospels? Should Mr Bush be absolved of the grave moral failings of his presidency because he went to meet the Pope at the airport? The discerning observer will recognize the preening self-aggrandizers in Washington, and not fail to recall that Jesus dismissed their self-absorbed displays of piety (Mark 12:43-44) while praising the poor widow who quietly sacrificed her whole livelihood for the wellbeing of others.