The Vatican’s recent snub of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is only the latest salvo in the battle between Pope Benedict XVI and President George W. Bush. This tug of war has profound implications for both U.S. foreign policy and the critical Catholic vote in 2008's presidential race.
On issues ranging from the war in Iraq to global warming, the Vatican and Washington have not seen eye to eye. With the popularity of U.S. foreign policy at record lows around the world, however, the Vatican’s diplomatic approach is more consistent with global public opinion.
Things haven't always been tense between Bush and Benedict. They share similar views regarding abortion, gay marriage, and other hot-button conservative issues. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (as Benedict was known before becoming Pope in April 2005) even helped Bush secure the White House for a second term.
Specifically, after Bush visited the Vatican in June 2004, complaining that "not all the American bishops are with me," Ratzinger sent a letter to U.S. bishops, ordering them to refuse communion to "a Catholic politician … consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws" – a thinly-veiled reference to John Kerry. Ratzinger added that any person even voting for this Catholic politician “would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion." Probably no surprise, then, that Bush increased his margin among Catholics by 6% from 2000 to 2004.
In an interesting twist, Ratzinger also partnered with George W. Bush's brother Neil in a foundation "to promote ecumenical understanding and publish original religious texts" in 1999. Oddly enough, business credit reports listed the foundation as a "management trust for purposes other than education, religion, charity or research," leaving the true nature of the Neil Bush/Cardinal Ratzinger venture unclear.
In 2005, Ratzinger was named as a defendant in a U.S. lawsuit suit accusing him of conspiring to cover up the sexual abuse of minors. At the center of the controversy was a May 2001 confidential letter he had sent Catholic bishops across the world ordering them to keep evidence of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy secret until 10 years after the child had reached adult status.
Soon after becoming Pope, however, Ratzinger was dismissed from the case. A U.S. federal judge decided the lawsuit would be "incompatible with the United States' foreign policy interests."
In many contentious issues since then, Pope Benedict XVI has disagreed with the Bush administration's policies, but only politely and indirectly. For example, Benedict has spoken in favor of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is often at loggerheads with Bush administration foreign policy.
Similarly, Benedict's Vatican has taken a firm stance against global warming, even acquiring a carbon offset forest to make the Vatican the "first entirely carbon neutral sovereign state." The Pope has called for greater international co-operation to fight ozone depletion, yet not overtly criticized White House foot-dragging in that area.
The gloves came off, however, regarding the war in Iraq. In a May 2003 interview, Ratzinger said, “There was not sufficient reasons to unleash a war in Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a 'just war.'"
The U.S. invasion of Iraq was similarly contentious for former Pope John Paul II, who sent a special envoy to the White House in March 2