When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Washington today he will be met personally at Andrews Air Force base by President and Mrs. Bush.
This is the first time in seven-plus years that this has ever happened. No king or potentate has received a personal welcome at Andrews by this president. This underscores the importance of this visit.
Millions will be watching and talking about this visit and many of them will be Protestants, like me and many of you, who will watch and listen with profound interest.
The importance of all of this cannot be overstated. President Bush, who has occasionally been opposed by the Vatican, such as in his decision to enter Iraq in 2003, is a great admirer of Benedict XVI. In this he represents so many of us. The president has a way of speaking about how he looks into a person’s eyes and see their character. He made a huge mistake when he accepted Putin’s credibility on face value by referring to this method. In this case, with Pope Benedict, whom he met in the Vatican two years ago, he is right in his measurement and understands powerfully the moral implications of this special visit to America. Even for non-Catholics the Pope represents "our better angels," to borrow Lincoln’s famous phrase. He towers over the moral confusion and compromise of our time like no other internationally known and respected individual.
The pope is expected to raise concerns about the fate of Christians in Iraq, a deeply troubling issue that I pray he will press the Bush White House about very firmly. The Middle East, home to early Christianity and once a place where millions of Christians lived safely, is no longer a stable place for believers, thus they have left in large numbers and those who remain are often hated and persecuted by radical Muslims. The pope, along with President Bush, wants to see religious freedom and tolerance advanced in the whole region. When EWTN, the Catholic television network, interviewed President Bush last week he said the best thing that we can do to help Iraqi Christians is "to keep our troops there long enough to have a civil society emerge . . . The best thing we can do for minorities, particularly Christian minorities, in Iraq, or any minority in Iraq, is to help this society develop into a peaceful society, where minority rights are respected."
While the pope opposed our entry into Iraq in 2003 he also understands that leaving now, without stabilizing the region and creating a safe civil society, is the worst possible choice. I only wish more American Christians had this kind of moral clarity, the kind that would allow them to not associate one action, perhaps wrongly made in 2003, with a second action to be made in 2009 because of politics. This second action would more than likely lead to even greater and more massive upheaval in the Middle East and large numbers of slaughtered and displaced people. I respect the argument that the war was wrong, on moral grounds, though I am not yet convinced myself. I also respect the deep desire to end the war as quickly as possible. What I cannot respect is the cavalier way that some think our leaving quickly and easily would actually solve the problems that would then follow when we left. The pope, thankfully, understands this very well thus he and President Bush will be in agreement. I pray the pope’s visit, and the conversation he shares with President Bush, gives moral strength to our nation ‘s leadership at every level.