The Papal Connection

Every president in the past half century has met with a pope, starting with Eisenhower.

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Pope Benedict XVI has wrapped up his Washington events, but his influence lingers, especially on America's commander in chief. President Bush sees the pope as a force for conservative values in the world and an ally in spreading democracy and freedom. True, the Vatican has opposed the Iraq war, which is a sore point at the White House. But Bush's admiration for Benedict derives from a broad appreciation of the pontiff's strong moral stands, including his opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and embryonic stem cell research. "They have a lot of shared values," says a key Bush adviser. Bush, a Methodist, recently told the Eternal Word Television Network, a Roman Catholic news organization, that he agrees with Benedict that "there's right and wrong in life, that moral relativism has a danger of undermining the capacity to have more hopeful and free societies."

Woodrow Wilson was the first president to meet with a pontiff when he visited Benedict XV at the Vatican in January 1919. And every president in the past half century has met with a pope, starting with Dwight Eisenhower's visit with John XXIII in December 1959. One reason for all this attention is to court America's large Catholic population. But the connection can be much more personal and, as with Bush, ideological. Ronald Reagan admired John Paul II for his conservative principles on social issues. But Reagan also was drawn to the pope's commitment to fighting communism in his native Poland and the Soviet Union, one of Reagan's objectives as president. The two became partners in pursuing the end of what Reagan called the "evil empire."