TOPICS > Nation

Pope Visits White House, Compliments U.S. Generosity

April 16, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
Loading the player...
Pope Benedict XVI visited the White House Wednesday, welcomed by President and Laura Bush. A reporter following the story discusses the pope's six-day U.S. visit.

RAY SUAREZ: Pope Benedict XVI was officially welcomed by President Bush on the South Lawn of the White House in a ceremony filled with pomp and pageantry.

It was the first visit of a pontiff to the White House in nearly 30 years and only the second one in history.

The crowd was one of the largest ever to gather on the South Lawn, more than 13,000 invited guests.

The president’s cabinet was in attendance, as were congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The pope and the president stood side-by-side while a Marine band played both anthems, the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the Holy See’s “Hymn and Pontifical March.”

CROWD (singing): Happy birthday to you…

RAY SUAREZ: An enthusiastic audience broke into a spontaneous birthday serenade, celebrating Pope Benedict’s 81st birthday.

Cheers of “Viva Il Papa!” also punctuated the otherwise reverent atmosphere.

GEORGE W. BUSH, president of the United States: Holy Father, Laura and I are privileged to have you here at the White House. We welcome you with the ancient words commended by St. Augustine, “pax tecum,” peace be with you.

RAY SUAREZ: In his remarks, President Bush said the American people’s hearts were open to the pope’s message.

GEORGE W. BUSH: 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 and embrace a culture of justice and truth.

RAY SUAREZ: The pontiff spoke in English, one of the nine other languages he speaks besides his native German. He addressed the estimated 67 million American Catholics, and all Americans, speaking of his respect for the country’s religious pluralism.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: I am happy to be here as a guest of all Americans. I come as a friend, a preacher of the gospel, and one with great respect for this vast, pluralistic society. America’s Catholics have made and continue to make an excellent contribution to the life of their country.

RAY SUAREZ: And the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger paid tribute to American generosity in times of crisis.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: America has traditionally shown herself generous in meeting immediate human needs, fostering development and offering relief to the victims of natural catastrophes.

I am confident that this concern for the greater human family will continue to find expression in support for the patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts and promote progress.

Mr. President, dear friends, as I begin my visit to the United States, I express once more my gratitude for your invitation, my joy to be in your midst, and my fervent prayers that almighty God will confirm this nation and its people in the ways of justice, prosperity and peace. God bless America.

RAY SUAREZ: The two then walked along the Rose Garden to the Oval Office, where they devoted considerable time to discussions on the Middle East. The Vatican has long opposed the U.S. invasion and subsequent presence in Iraq.

The president is hosting a birthday dinner for the pontiff tonight, but the pope, who does not usually attend state dinners, will send his representatives.

Thousands of the faithful and curious lined the streets of Washington hoping for a glimpse of the leader of the world’s Catholics after he left the White House. The cheers were deafening, and the spectators waved the flag of the Holy See and held birthday signs.

The pope met with U.S. Catholic cardinals at the Vatican embassy this afternoon. This evening, he headed to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the United States, to meet with American bishops.

Clearing up the 'question mark'

JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill takes the story from there.

GWEN IFILL: Here to tell us more about Pope Benedict and the message he is bringing on his trip to the United States is John Allen, senior correspondent for National Catholic Reporter and a Vatican analysis for CNN. He is also the author of two books on the pope.

Welcome back, John.

JOHN ALLEN, National Catholic Reporter: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for most Americans, Pope Benedict is kind of an enigma. What has he come here to tell America, especially the Catholic laity?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, first of all, I think you're quite right that Benedict is in many ways a question mark for the American public. A recent survey by the Pew Forum found that 80 percent of Americans, including two-thirds of the almost 70 million Catholics in this country, say they know nothing or almost nothing about the pope.

So, in many ways, this is his debut on the American stage. And I think fundamentally what he has come to do, beyond simply introducing himself, is to try to bring a message of what he calls Christian hope, that is, make the argument that the Catholic Church joins all people of goodwill in trying to build a better world to foster peace and justice and so on and that, in his own view, the key to that lies in the teaching and in the person of Jesus Christ.

Now, that can sound a little abstract, perhaps, or a bit pious, but when you start hashing that out in terms of what it means in the concrete, there are some very pointed social and political consequences to the pope's message.

It includes, on the one hand, opposition to things like abortion and embryonic stem cell research, but also compassion for immigrants, a topic the pope spoke on board the papal plane about, a desire to see peace in Iraq, a peaceful transition there, and so on.

So it's a spiritual and pastoral message, but one that does clearly have a social and political edge.

GWEN IFILL: When the pope met today at the White House with President Bush, at least in the public session he didn't speak about the war in Iraq, and apparently neither did he to Catholic bishops he met with this afternoon. Do we expect that to come up?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, I don't know if Benedict XVI is specifically going to talk about the Iraq conflict, but I do expect that we will hear repeatedly throughout the visit references to his vision of how the world ought to go about combating a war on terrorism.

And, in his view, it can't be solved exclusively through military means. You also have to strike at what he calls the roots of injustice. And by that he means the problem of chronic economic underdevelopment in impoverished nations and the reasons why a significant percentage of the world's people feel angry and alienated.

And so I do think that that will be a theme that he will come at in various ways while he's in the United States.

A more public role for religion

GWEN IFILL: Another theme he seems to be speaking to the bishops about is that religion is not a private matter and should not be treated as a private matter, that Catholics shouldn't feel the ability to pick and choose what they choose to believe and how they choose to live out their faith.

Is that something which you are feeling here any kind of friction about or, as the pope is here, is that pretty much embraced?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think there are sort of two points implied in that question. One is the public role of religion, and this is something actually that Benedict XVI admires about the United States, particularly in comparison to Europe.

In Europe, he believes that religion and religious groups have to some extent been marginalized and sort of excluded from public conversation. He believes within the United States, on the other hand, religious believers in churches have a kind of vibrant role in public conversation.

He touched that theme in his remarks to the president, returned to it again in his programmatic speech to the bishops, and I think we'll hear it repeatedly throughout the visit.

Now, the other point, of course, is that the pope's concern that Catholics not be selectively Catholic or that the phrase for it sometimes is cafeteria Catholicism, that is that he sort of has an "in for a penny, in for a pound" approach that Catholics ought to be coherent and subscribe to the whole of church teaching.

In terms of what the reaction to that is going to be at the Catholic grassroots, my suspicion is that most Catholics will say, well, of course, that's the message the holy father is going to send. It's what one would expect from the pope.

But I don't know that it is going to magically transform the reality that many Catholics, while feeling solidly rooted in their faith, nevertheless might have particular points of disagreement with this or that article of church teaching.

A teacher rather than an evangelist

GWEN IFILL: John, you've been covering the Vatican for a long time and there's obviously a big personality difference between Pope John Paul, the last pope to visit the United States, and this pope. As you look at the schedule of those two men each separately had on their first visits to the United States, does that tell us anything about how different they are?

JOHN ALLEN: Yes, I think it does. You know, when John Paul came to the United States for the first time in 1979, he was here for seven days. He visited seven cities, and he gave 63 speeches.

Benedict XVI on his first trip in the United States is here for six days. He's visiting two cities and giving 13 speeches.

And I think that tells us two things, one, that John Paul was 58 when he was elected. Benedict XVI, as you noted, is celebrating his 81st birthday here in the United States. You know, obviously an 81-year-old man cannot conduct the kind of national barn-storming tour that a younger John Paul could earlier in his papacy.

But, secondly, it also indicates something about differing personalities between these two men. John Paul was in many ways a human dynamo. And he saw himself very much as an evangelist, that is, someone whose mission was to hit the byways and the highways of the modern world to spread the word of Christ.

Benedict, on the other hand, I think sees himself much more as a teacher, and so he devotes great care to his public messages, to his documents, the other fora in which he teaches. And that calls in his mind for something that's a lower, less dramatic, less spectacular, more reflective pace.

And I think we're seeing that in the way he has scheduled himself over these days.

GWEN IFILL: And his role is also not to bring lectures to the leadership of the United States politically.

JOHN ALLEN: Well, that's right. I mean, the kind of sound bite I have used is that the pope is not a super delegate riding into the United States to issue an endorsement in the 2008 elections. I think, in many ways, you see him moving Heaven and Earth, sort of figuratively, to try to stay above the political fray.

But on the other hand, there's no getting around the fact that there are political implications to some of the pope's messages. I mean, he spoke tonight with the bishops referring, among other things, to the scandal given by Catholics who uphold an alleged right to an abortion.

You know, that clearly does have direct political implications and, moreover, you know, any time the pope is on American soil during a tightly fought election campaign, in which the Catholic vote is, so to speak, in play, inevitably there is some political subtext to what's going on.

GWEN IFILL: OK. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, thanks again for joining us.

JOHN ALLEN: You're welcome.