Neither characterization is accurate.
Watching the event, I saw a president who treated the Holy Father with respect and reverence. What the media spun as awkwardness, I saw as a sign of Bush’s utmost regard for the holiness of John Paul II. In addition, I can only imagine that sitting in the pope’s presence, witnessing him struggle against the ravages of his body, makes one sit at full attention.
It’s ridiculous to speculate that the president or any of his advisors were surprised by the pope’s direct reference to the embryonic stem cell controversy. In the past two months, Bush has been nearly besieged by messages from Catholic leaders and groups, urging him to reject federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, the head of the United States Bishops Conference, met with him in the Oval Office to discuss the issue only a few weeks ago.
To say that Bush was “surprised” or “lectured” is simply media spin. The president knows that John Paul II is a man of uncompromising moral conviction; he met with the Holy Father fully prepared to listen to any of his concerns, whether expressed privately or publicly.
Perhaps the media is trying to set up a lose-lose scenario: If Bush decides to ban federal funding, he has buckled to Vatican pressure; if he compromises, then he has turned his back on the Catholic vote.
Very few of the subsequent media accounts mentioned the obvious warmth and affection with which the Holy Father met the American president, how he took him by the hand and led him into a room for their private conversation and again grasped Bush’s hand as he brought him into the room for their public statements.
When the President arrived at the U.S. Vatican Embassy, his meeting with the pope had him visibly exhilarated. Bush said if he were a poet he could put the power of the pope’s presence into words. He noted that though John Paul II did not have the outward physical vigor he was still able to communicate clearly and forcefully. He heard his message and promised he would take it
The final aspect of media confusion over the papal visit was their treatment of the pope’s statement on embryonic stem cells. Since the pope explicitly mentioned only the creation of embryos for medical research, they concluded this was a signal that the President was getting Vatican blessing for a compromise.
It’s times like this when you wish reporters could take a course in Catholicism 101. The next day Holy See Press Officer Joaquin Navarro-Valls issued a statement stating the obvious that the Church opposes the use of embryonic stem cells in any manner.
Bush and his White House advisors knew what the Pope was saying. They have been studying this issue for months, and have received advice from the top pro-life bioethicists.
The reaction of the Catholic community to Bush’s decision will not come as a surprise, whatever that decision turns out to be.