George W. Bush and Pope Benedict XVI stand outside the Oval Office in 2008.

George W. Bush and Pope Benedict XVI stand outside the Oval Office in 2008. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP file photo

Papal White House Visits Are Special, But They Sometimes Get Awkward

Meetings between popes and presidents have ranged from memorable to prickly.

Pope Fran­cis’s ar­rival at the White House on Wed­nes­day will be marked with all the pomp nor­mally ac­cor­ded a head of state, not un­like the ce­re­mon­ies that wel­comed so many pre­vi­ous world lead­ers over the years. But as aides to Pres­id­ent Obama and sev­er­al earli­er pres­id­ents have learned, there is noth­ing routine when a pres­id­ent of the United States sits down with the lead­er of the world’s one bil­lion Cath­ol­ics.

For White House staffers, that is both good and bad. It’s good in that many staffers re­mem­ber pap­al meet­ings as one of the high­lights of their ten­ure. But it’s bad be­cause no one really knows in ad­vance what a pope is go­ing to say be­hind closed doors. Most sum­mits are tightly scrip­ted. That doesn’t hap­pen in a pap­al-pres­id­en­tial meet­ing, lead­ing to awk­ward mo­ments in some of the past ses­sions between 12 pres­id­ents and six pontiffs. Be­hind closed doors and away from the cam­er­as, the talks have at times gone from bless­ings and gen­er­al­it­ies to strong dis­agree­ments and spe­cif­ics.

Still, par­ti­cipants keep com­ing back to the unique­ness of these sum­mits between the world’s top tem­por­al and top re­li­gious lead­ers. “It was one of the most mem­or­able things per­son­ally that I worked on,” re­called An­ita McBride, who played the lead role for the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion in plan­ning Pope Be­ne­dict XVI’s vis­it to the White House in 2008. “Dur­ing my time in three dif­fer­ent ad­min­is­tra­tions, this totally rose to the top,” she told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “It is just on such a very dif­fer­ent level from everything else.”

McBride is Cath­ol­ic. But non-Cath­ol­ic staffers give sim­il­ar re­ports. Ari Fleis­cher, Bush’s first press sec­ret­ary, was present for two meet­ings with Pope John Paul II. He laugh­ingly ac­know­ledged he had not giv­en much thought to popes when he was a boy grow­ing up Jew­ish in New York. “But this is spe­cial stuff—even if you’re not Cath­ol­ic,” he said. “There is an oth­er-world­li­ness to it. Un­like a sum­mit meet­ing or oth­er routine vis­it, even with the most im­port­ant head of state, the papacy is unique. The trap­pings of of­fice are dif­fer­ent from any­where else.”

Be­cause John Paul was ail­ing and near­ing death, his last meet­ing with Bush was “mostly ce­re­mo­ni­al,” re­called Fleis­cher, with the pres­id­ent do­ing most of the talk­ing. “But it had such an im­port­ant air and feel to it. … Just to meet him was spe­cial. Popes have an air and a grace about them that sets them apart and makes them spe­cial even for those who aren’t Cath­ol­ic.”

Fleis­cher still treas­ures a coin giv­en him by the pope, just as McBride re­tains a ros­ary giv­en her by Be­ne­dict. She re­called that Bush ar­ranged for the pope to meet with the Cath­ol­ics on his seni­or staff as well as some Bush fam­ily mem­bers who are Cath­ol­ic.

That meet­ing made an im­pact on her. But even more, she said, she re­mem­bers how non-Cath­ol­ics were af­fected. “There was not one per­son who was not moved by meet­ing the Holy Fath­er. It doesn’t mat­ter what faith you are, there is something ex­traordin­ar­ily mov­ing and spe­cial about someone who is lead­ing so many people. It is just on such a dif­fer­ent level from oth­er world lead­ers.”

There have, though, been some ten­sions in the past sum­mits. Pres­id­ent Woo­drow Wilson, in­tend­ing to keep the pope out of the post­war peace talks in Par­is, ini­tially re­fused to vis­it Be­ne­dict XV. He re­len­ted only when Joseph Tu­multy, a Cath­ol­ic and Wilson’s closest aide, in­sisted. The meet­ing, on Janu­ary 9, 1919, did not go well.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port in the Na­tion­al Cath­ol­ic Re­view, Wilson was very much a “prickly Pres­by­teri­an” in the meet­ing, balk­ing when the pope offered a tra­di­tion­al pap­al bless­ing. Wilson de­man­ded an ex­plan­a­tion. When the pope said the bless­ing was for every­one, Cath­ol­ic and non-Cath­ol­ic, the pres­id­ent turned to his staff and asked, “Are there any Cath­ol­ics here?” The Cath­ol­ics knelt and Wilson bowed his head for the bless­ing. He then re­jec­ted Be­ne­dict’s 10-point peace plan and re­fused to in­ter­vene to give con­trol of Vat­ic­an City to the church in­stead of the anti-cler­ic­al Itali­an gov­ern­ment.

More re­cent meet­ings have gone bet­ter but still have had mo­ments of fric­tion or em­bar­rass­ment. John F. Kennedy, the first Cath­ol­ic pres­id­ent, was watched care­fully to see if he would kiss Paul VI’s ring. He didn’t, in­stead shak­ing his hand. Jimmy Carter had what was of­fi­cially billed as a pro­duct­ive and friendly meet­ing with John Paul II in 1979. Twenty-five years later—just months after the pope’s death—a fuller pic­ture emerged when Carter wrote Our En­dangered Val­ues. In the book, he de­scribed the pope as a “fun­da­ment­al­ist” and gave more de­tails of their meet­ing, the first-ever vis­it by a pope to the White House.

Carter wrote that the pope “seemed to wel­come a free ex­change of views.” So he “dis­agreed with him on his per­petu­ation of the sub­ser­vi­ence of wo­men and their ex­clu­sion from the priest­hood.” This, wrote Carter, was “har­mo­ni­ous.” But, he ad­ded, “there was more harsh­ness when we turned to the sub­ject of lib­er­a­tion theo­logy” in Lat­in Amer­ica. The pope had cracked down on the priests es­pous­ing that. But Carter called them “her­oes.”

The next pres­id­ent to meet with John Paul was Ron­ald Re­agan, who was a fa­vor­ite of the Vat­ic­an after he opened dip­lo­mat­ic re­la­tions with the Holy See in 1984. This act car­ried Re­agan past the em­bar­rass­ment of him no­tice­ably doz­ing off dur­ing a meet­ing with John Paul II in 1983.

John Paul was still the pontiff a dec­ade later when he sat down with Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton in 1994. The White House thought the talks went well. But the pope—ac­cord­ing to his sur­geon—thought oth­er­wise. He quoted the pope as say­ing: “The only lead­er I did not man­age to have a prop­er con­ver­sa­tion with was Pres­id­ent Clin­ton. I was speak­ing and he was look­ing at one of the walls, ad­mir­ing the fres­coes and the paint­ings.”

George W. Bush had sev­er­al meet­ings with popes, with the talks at times clouded by op­pos­i­tion to the Ir­aq War by both John Paul and Be­ne­dict XVI. Be­ne­dict privately ques­tioned wheth­er it was a “just war.” But he went out of his way not to em­bar­rass the pres­id­ent in his ar­rival re­marks at the White House.

When Pres­id­ent Obama wel­comes Fran­cis to the White House Wed­nes­day, it will cap months of plan­ning by aides. But Charlie Kupchan, seni­or dir­ect­or for European Af­fairs on the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, ac­know­ledged there could be sur­prises. “Not only is the Vat­ic­an not a ‘nor­mal’ coun­try, but this pope is a very in­de­pend­ent fig­ure,” he told re­port­ers. “And we know from his pre­vi­ous travels that we don’t know what he’s go­ing to say un­til he says it.”

The pope and the pres­id­ent broadly agree on cli­mate change, in­come in­equal­ity, and fight­ing poverty. They sharply dis­agree on abor­tion and the con­tra­cep­tion man­date of the pres­id­ent’s health care re­form. But, as staffers re­peatedly warn, the agenda is flu­id. Greg Schneiders, a key aide in the Carter White House who was some­times called the pres­id­ent’s “Cath­ol­ic ad­viser,” said it is dif­fi­cult to know what Fran­cis will want to talk about. Jok­ingly, he ad­ded, “He and Obama may dis­agree a bit on which of them is more in­fal­lible.”