Pope calls for a more just society
Pontiff speaks at a birthday party held in his honor at the White House
MSNBC News Services
updated 8:34 a.m. PT, Wed., April. 16, 2008
WASHINGTON - Saying he had come as a friend of the United States, Pope Benedict XVI urged Americans and their leaders Wednesday to base their political and social decisions on moral principles and create a more just society.
In an address to President Bush at the White House on the first full day of his U.S. visit, the pope also called for "patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts" and promote progress around the world.
"I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society," the pontiff said in a speech after Bush welcomed him to the White House at a ceremony that included 21-gun salute and the Marine Band playing the national anthem of the Holy See. More than 9,000 people, including several members of Bush's Cabinet, came to the ceremony, the largest in White House history.
The pope, marking his 81st birthday, was full of praise for American society, sprinkling his speech with references to the founding fathers — citing the Declaration of Independence and the first president, George Washington.
But he made no specific references to issues such as abortion and the war in Iraq, appearing at pains to avoid saying anything that could be seen as taking sides in the presidential campaign apart from saying that freedom called for "reasoned public debate."
Instead, the pope concentrated on America's religious roots, which he said were a driving force in a process that "forged the soul of the nation" and won the admiration of the world.
Bush: 'Life is sacred' "We need your message that all human life is sacred," Bush said in a speech welcoming the pontiff.
"In a world where some no longer believe that we can distinguish between simple right and wrong, we need your message to reject this dictatorship of relativism," he added.
Bush and his wife, Laura, stood on the driveway to welcome the pontiff as he stepped from his limousine. The pope greeted them with a two-handed handshake.
Wednesday was the first full day of the pope's first trip to the United States as leader of the world's Roman Catholics. He'll spend most of it at the White House.
On the way from Rome on Tuesday, Benedict said he was looking forward to meeting a "great people and a great church" during his first papal journey to the United States. The six-day trip to Washington and New York City coincides not just with his birthday, but the three-year anniversary of his ascendance to the Catholic church's top position.
Nurturing the U.S. flock is a sensitive and important mission for Benedict at a time not just of ongoing scandal but also of his campaign to tamp down secularism and re-ignite faith.
This get-together by Bush and Benedict is the 25th meeting between a Roman Catholic pope and a U.S. president, sessions that span 89 years, five pontiffs and 11 American leaders.
Private Oval Office meetingWhile Bush and Benedict have some points of agreement, they do disagree over the war in Iraq, the death penalty and the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
Benedict also speaks for environmental protection and social welfare in ways that often run counter to Bush policies. And the pontiff told reporters on his plane that he planned to bring up immigration policy with Bush during their private Oval Office meeting. Benedict has talked forcefully in the past about the damage caused by punitive immigration laws.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush would focus on areas of agreement, such as on expanding religious tolerance and containing violent extremism. She said shared concerns for Africa and Lebanon would be on the president's agenda.
Perino predicted that Iraq would not "dominate the conversation in any way." If it comes up, it's likely to be focused almost exclusively on the fears of the Christian minority in Muslim-majority Iraq, she said.
Another topic that will get cursory attention, if any, is the clergy sex abuse scandal that continues to devastate the American church. Perino called it not "necessarily on the president's top priorities" for the meeting.
Benedict chose to talk on the topic on his flight to the United States. Answering questions submitted to and selected by Vatican officials in advance, Benedict said he was "deeply ashamed" by the scandal and "will do everything possible to heal this wound."
No pope has been to the United States since the case of a Boston serial molester triggered a crisis that spread throughout the U.S. and beyond in 2002. Benedict's prayer service with U.S. bishops on Wednesday night at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception will be watched closely for how he addresses the issue. Because of the prayer service, the pope was not planning to attend a dinner in his honor at the White House.
Bush has courted the Catholic vote, about a quarter of the U.S. electorate, since his first presidential campaign, with some success. But though Bush has no more campaigns to run now, he is laying out the red carpet for the pontiff.
UnprecedentedThe president kicked off the unprecedented series of events by motoring to Andrews Air Force Base just outside Washington on Tuesday to meet Benedict's plane, something he's never done for any leader. The pontiff received a screaming, cheering reception befitting a rock star from the hundreds of Catholic students and others who filled bleachers on the tarmac while Bush, accompanied by his wife, Laura, and daughter Jenna, assumed the unusual role of second fiddle.
Wednesday's South Lawn audience for the pope's arrival, filled out by members of the Knights of Columbus and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, is expected to be the largest of Bush's presidency and among the largest ever at the White House. So many people have been invited, in fact, that many will only be able to see Bush and Benedict on a large television screen.
Soprano Kathleen Battle has been enlisted to sing "The Lord's Prayer" — a decision the White House defended as appropriate despite the overt insertion of religion into a public event. "I think we've struck the right balance," Perino said. "Many people across America and across the world say that prayer in order to provide themselves comfort and confidence in getting their day started."