A Pope & a President
A meeting of the minds and hearts.


On or about June 4, President Bush will meet with Pope John Paul II, and the symbolism will be quite surprising. No one in our time has done as much to put on the worldwide agenda as Pope John Paul II has the advancement of human rights and democracy. He did so in his native Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, including even Russia. He did so in the Marcos Philippines, in Chile, in El Salvador and Nicaragua, in Cuba, and all through Africa and Asia. Lately, he has begun to sound the theme for the Muslim nations, in the Middle East and beyond. He sees human rights and democracy as the intertwined fruit of a biblical (Jewish/Christian) vision of human beings, combined with a vision of the way nature intended man to develop over time: to learn to be a citizen of systems formed to his own capacities for reflection and choice.

Meanwhile, George Bush is the first leader of the North Atlantic cultures, along with Tony Blair, to imagine a new age in which Muslim peoples, too, enter systems that respect their inherent dignity and civil liberties, and encourage their economic creativity and initiative. The “system of natural liberty” was intended by God for Muslims as well as Christians and Jews, the American president openly affirms–it is a calling for all humans, not just Americans.

No pope has been a more active international teacher about rights and democracy. No president has been as willing to sacrifice and pay in treasure and blood so that Muslim peoples, beginning with Afghanistan and Iraq, might have a chance at liberty and prosperity.

To be sure, there are many in Europe (and even in the Vatican) who do not think Muslim “culture” is up to the standard required for “Western” style government and “Western” style rights. But both Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) and George W. Bush come not from Paris or Berlin or Brussels or other glittering capitals, but from small inland cities with rather more humble and plainspoken populations. Like Agatha Christie, they see into the human heart on the small village scale, and know all its complexities and possibilities from daily experience rather than from the chattering classes. They see that every human being, without exception, has been endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable hungers for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–and the right to exercise these inner energies.

The pope and the president have this in common: They see noble possibilities where others see lifeless landscapes. Where others say, “It can’t be done,” the pope has been heard to say: “Be not afraid!” and his biographer says the leitmotiv of his life is as the world’s premier “Witness to Hope.” The president has been heard to say, “We have a chance to change history, to launch a tide of democracy where it has never reached before.”

I do not mean to put the two men on the same plane. In spiritual and intellectual weight, in years of suffering and hardship and difficult intellectual work, Pope John Paul II far outstrips the much younger and less accomplished president.

Yet the still-young president was admirable in the way he led a wounded nation through the horrors of September 11, 2001, and brilliant in the leadership he gave to two swift wars (wars singularly and hugely sparing of human lives, with many, many thousand fewer casualties on both sides than naysayers were predicting)–wars that liberated some 50 million Muslims from sadistic and brutally repressive regimes. In addition, these wars led to remarkably rapid progress in lifting educational and medical facilities in those countries to heights never before reached, and in getting underway the first, most difficult steps of self-government.

It might even be said that the young president has taught the long-experienced Vatican some new possibilities for Muslim cultures, the championing of the human rights of Muslims everywhere, and self-government of, by, and for Muslim peoples. As Sandro Magister has reported on his website, www.Chiesa, Vatican diplomacy during the last two years has begun emphasizing democracy and human rights in the Muslim world as never before.

I expect the pope to urge the president to work now ever more closely with the United Nations–poor as it is, it is the best international reed we have to lean upon, and we should patiently strengthen it, not break it or cast it aside–and to take care to let the light of international law shine through American actions (since America did more than any other nation to build up the structure of international law during the 20th century). The pope thinks the United States is a great and indispensable nation, but one whose greatest inner strength derives from the law, and gains necessary outside support from the international web of the law.

That’s a concept familiar to this president, who once owned a major-league baseball team. Not a single action happens in baseball without the deciding voice of the law, uttered by an umpire: strike/ball, safe/out, fair/foul. On the Statue of Liberty is written: Liberty under Law. As the American hymn articulates the prayer: Confirm thy soul in self-control / Thy liberty in law. The president respects the laws of God, the nation, and international agreements.

The pope well understands the circumstances which led the president to obey the obligation of the presidential office, as the president saw it, to act in Iraq in March of 2003, even as the pope was doing everything possible to dissuade him, and to make war unnecessary. Both leaders have been over that ground together before. They are focused now on bringing peace and order–a new order, a new possibility–to a crucial and long-troubled region.

I expect the president to ask for help from the pope in persuading European governments to take up some of their own responsibilities for building new democracies, and regimes that respect the human rights of Muslims, in that troubled region. The poverty and political repression currently suffered by so many Muslims–”the forgotten one billion,” as I call them–cannot continue indefinitely. There must be a more creative system for the young and the poor.

That is the new door that the young president has tried to pry open. I am certain that the pope will not want to close it, but to push it open further and further, in line with his own lifetime teaching. But the pope will repeat, and repeat: International law, international law. Do not neglect it. Build it up. Make that your legacy.

They will each have things to ask of the other. During their conversation, it would be fun to be an angel in one of the nearby painted murals!

And, just by the way, although it may be different in Europe, a great many of the groups in America that most hate President Bush also hate the Catholic Church, and say so quite openly. Regarding abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, cloning, and same-sex marriage, the vision the Catholic church upholds of the unity of body and soul stands athwart the sexual politics of many powerful elites, and is not at all appreciated by them. The fact that the position of President Bush is quite close to the Catholic view is another reason why our elites so intensely hate him.

On matters regarding “the culture of life,” the pope and the president will sense in one another quite remarkable allies in another of the most bitter battles of our time. On this, for sure, the angels will smile.

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is


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