Pope and State

It’s like the British Invasion all over again, except this time not by four mop-topped lads from Liverpool descending on America to take our country by storm.

On Wednesday, April 16, Pope Benedict XVI, spiritual leader for one billion Roman Catholics worldwide, will visit Washington, DC. It will be his first trip to America, and only the second time ever that a pope has visited the White House. [1]

I’m fine with visits by spiritual leaders. Ironically, this morning I attended a Philanthropy Dialog with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and several leaders of philanthropy in Seattle, hosted by the group Seeds of Compassion. [2] It was wonderful seeing this humble giant of a man in person and experiencing both his deep wisdom and disarming sense of humor. He was casually dressed, soft-spoken and wore comfortable shoes. Discussion focused on ways to cultivate philanthropy at the core of our society. Not once was the current turmoil in the Dalai Lama’s native Tibet discussed, as all understood this would have inappropriately blurred the lines of church and state, potentially cheapening such a transcendent experience.

Now the pope is coming to visit. I can imagine that he too will offer his own form of personal magnetism and charisma, and perhaps even talk about compassion and philanthropy in a meaningful way. He too is a great person worthy of respect. But that’s not the point of this essay.

The real story is that George W. Bush is arranging quite the party, including:

  • meeting the pope’s plane at the airport
  • regaling the pope with all manner of military pomp-and-circumstance, including a 21-gun salute
  • throwing a big White House shindig in the pope’s honor featuring 12,000 guests

In his seven years in office, Bush apparently has never met a visiting government leader at the airport.

This action by Bush raises sobering questions about the separation of church and state in America. I believe it is the job of our government leaders to lead government. Bush has chosen to welcome one major religion into his White House in the grandest, most historic possible terms, while continuing to overlook like levels of engagement needed to resolve real issues of governance – social, economic, environmental and political – with our friends and foes around the globe.

Furthermore, why would the pope, a vicar for the Prince of Peace, want to be recognized with a full-on military salute? Wouldn’t a humble sit-down dinner and discourse with America’s leaders in philanthropy and compassion be more appropriate?


  1. http://edition.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/04/13/pope.visit.ap/index.html
  2. http://www.seedsofcompassion.org/

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