The leader of the world’s 1 billion Roman Catholics has been to the White House only once in history.
That changes this week, and President Bush is pulling out all the stops: driving out to a suburban military base to meet Pope Benedict XVI’s plane, bringing a giant audience to the South Lawn and hosting a fancy East Room dinner.
These are all firsts.
Bush has never before given a visiting leader the honor of picking him up at the airport. In fact, no president has done so at Andrews Air Force Base, the typical landing spot for modern leaders.
Meanwhile, we have an article some link to with the description “George W. Bush, ‘closet Catholic'”:
Shortly after Pope Benedict XVI’s election in 2005, President Bush met with a small circle of advisers in the Oval Office. As some mentioned their own religious backgrounds, the president remarked that he had read one of the new pontiff’s books about faith and culture in Western Europe.
Save for one other soul, Bush was the only non-Catholic in the room. But his interest in the pope’s writings was no surprise to those around him. As the White House prepares to welcome Benedict on Tuesday, many in Bush’s inner circle expect the pontiff to find a kindred spirit in the president. Because if Bill Clinton can be called America’s first black president, some say, then George W. Bush could well be the nation’s first Catholic president.
This isn’t as strange a notion as it sounds. Yes, there was John F. Kennedy. But where Kennedy sought to divorce his religion from his office, Bush has welcomed Roman Catholic doctrine and teachings into the White House and based many important domestic policy decisions on them.
“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” says Rick Santorum, former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and a devout Catholic, who was the first to give Bush the “Catholic president” label. “He’s certainly much more Catholic than Kennedy.”
Moreover, people close to Bush say that he has professed a not-so-secret admiration for the church’s discipline and is personally attracted to the breadth and unity of its teachings. A New York priest who has befriended the president said that Bush respects the way Catholicism starts at the foundation — with the notion that the papacy is willed by God and that the pope is Peter’s successor. “I think what fascinates him about Catholicism is its historical plausibility,” says this priest. “He does appreciate the systematic theology of the church, its intellectual cogency and stability.” The priest also says that Bush “is not unaware of how evangelicalism — by comparison with Catholicism — may seem more limited both theologically and historically.”
Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, another evangelical with an affinity for Catholic teaching, says that the key to understanding Bush’s domestic policy is to view it through the lens of Rome. Others go a step further.
Paul Weyrich, an architect of the religious right, detects in Bush shades of former British prime minister Tony Blair, who converted to Catholicism last year. “I think he is a secret believer,” Weyrich says of Bush. Similarly, John DiIulio, Bush’s first director of faith-based initiatives, has called the president a “closet Catholic.” And he was only half-kidding.
In 2004, after the election, I went on a retreat at Malvern Retreat House. Talking to one of the other retreatants, he told me that he thought Bush was practically a Catholic given his stances on many issues. I had to agree, and stated that he was certainly more Catholic than his putatively Catholic opponent. And as stated above, more Catholic as President than JFK. (I’ll not compare him to Al Smith. I’ve got no beef with Smith, who by all accounts was a faithful Catholic.)
His brother Jeb is already Catholic. A while back there was a photo of W. with a picture of Mary on a table next to him in either the White House or some other personal location. He’s gone out of his way to consult with the Pope more than any other President in history. Maybe another Bush will crossing the Tiber soon….