Why Bush Dissed the Pope

American Catholics were alarmed that the president of the United States raised the issue of the sex scandals with John Paul II. Bush isn’t Catholic. It’s really none of his business.

"I will tell him that I am concerned about the Catholic Church in America," Bush told reporters. "I’m concerned about its standing. I say that because the Catholic Church is an incredibly important institution in our country."

Where does he get this idea that the president, the head political figure in the United States, is somehow responsible for conveying to the pope a message that is exclusively religious in nature?

Granted, the pope needs to hear it from someone. Had he fired bishops wholesale months ago, there would have been no issue for Bush to raise. It is because the Vatican has failed to act, adopting instead the posture of a modified, limited hangout, that this was even a consideration.

The news that Bush had raised the issue dominated coverage of the event. Let’s hope this pathetic reality helps disabuse curial bureaucrats of their absurd hope that it’s going away because it only involves what they see as that stupid, tacky, mostly Protestant country overseas.

Perhaps it will now begin to dawn on these people that this scandal is important, indeed, the most important development in church life in many decades. The future of the Catholic Church is bound up with the future of American Catholics, and the Vatican needs to face that fact.

And yet there was more going on here. Bush didn’t raise the issue because he is arrogant and has come to believe that he embodies all the hopes and aspirations of the entire country in his person — though he apparently does believe that. Bush raised the issue because he wanted to gain the upper hand in the meeting.

Unsettling someone at the outset of a big meeting is the classic way to win at negotiations. It is a cutthroat tactic. But why would Bush do it? What issue lurked in the background? The Associated Press speculated it had something to do with winning political support from American Catholics. Polls suggest Catholics want heads to roll in this scandal.

Interesting theory, but it is completely wrong.

The real issue lurking in the background here is the Middle East and US warmongering generally. You wouldn’t know it from US coverage of Catholic issues, but the pope has been a severe critic of US foreign policy.

John Paul II condemned Bush’s father’s war on Iraq. He denounced US sanctions on Iraq years ago. He had repeatedly denounced the idea of yet another attack on Iraq. He has relentlessly championed the rights of Palestinian Christians in the Middle East, and been out front in condemning Israel’s belligerence, and US support of it. This has become an issue crucial to Christendom of late as sacred shrines have become part of a continuing war. In short, the pope has been, and continues to be, an opponent of US foreign policy.

What better way to set the pope back a few steps than to raise the most embarrassing issue to afflict Catholics in America? It made it rather difficult for the pope to speak with moral authority, which is the real meaning behind Bush’s comment that he is concerned about the Catholic Church’s "standing." Bush was saying, in effect, "no moralizing to me about the Middle East; you’ve got problems of your own to deal with."

Yes, it is a disgusting thing for Bush to have done. On the other hand, it should be clear that the moral credibility of the Catholic Church to speak on anything has indeed been damaged through this scandal. There is also truth to the assertion that the Vatican needs to spend less time on politics and more time on managing its own affairs. That fact should now be clearer now than ever before.