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By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY — President Bush received an especially warm welcome from Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Friday (June 13), as the two leaders met for the third time in little more than a year.

Instead of receiving his guest in the papal apartments, as protocol ordinarily dictates, Benedict greeted the president and first lady Laura Bush at the entrance to the Tower of St. John, a restored medieval structure in the Vatican gardens.

The two men spoke privately in the tower for half an hour, then strolled through the gardens to the Grotto of Lourdes, where the first lady joined them for two hymns performed by the Sistine Chapel boys’ choir.

The Vatican said the “cordial talks” focused on “the president’s commitment in defense of fundamental moral values,” U.S.-European relations, the Middle East, the global food crisis and efforts to combat poverty.

The Vatican press office said the highly personal “special protocol” was a gesture of thanks for the “cordiality of the welcome” when Benedict visited the U.S. in April. Bush personally met the pope at Andrews Air Force Base–the only time the president has met a foreign leader on the tarmac.

“I think (the pope) was really very moved by the outpouring of warmth from the American people, both Catholics and non-Catholics who revere the pope as someone, you know, with unquestionable moral authority,” Laura Bush told reporters traveling on Air Force One.

Bush’s avowed admiration for the pope and his embrace of Catholic social teaching on such controversial issues as abortion, stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage have fueled speculation that the president himself might embrace the Catholic faith.

Those same rumors swirled around Rome on Friday.

“According to Washington voices, the president, a Methodist Christian, could be on the verge of converting to Catholicism” like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, wrote Ignazio Ingrao in the popular Italian newsweekly Panorama. Some Washington observers have contrasted Bush’s affinity for Catholic social teaching with the more liberal agenda of the nation’s first and only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.

Bush’s staff, however, promptly denied the rumors.

“It is not true,” White House Press Secretary Dana Perino told Religion News Service. “He has often, in jest, been called the first Catholic president–but he’s not planning to convert.”

 

Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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