A new American president normally looks forward to meeting the pope for the first time. The traditional private session with the pontiff is supposed to help the president with Catholics back home and show him to be diplomatic and moral. But President Bush's first encounter Monday with Pope John Paul II turned out to be far more than a photo op.

After weeks of agonizing over the ethics--and politics--of embryonic stem cell research, the administration knew that the timing of Bush's meeting with the
pope could profoundly influence the deliberations. Not in recent memory has a pope personally offered an appeal on an issue the President was about to decide. During the meeting, John Paul II read a strong statement urging Bush to deny funds for the controversial research, saying that America has a moral responsibility to reject actions that "devalue and violate human life."

Some analysts believe the statement makes it significantly harder for Bush to support stem cell research. "My sense is that the conservatives have gained a little ground," said University of Akron professor John Green after the meeting at the Vatican. "They've put a lot of pressure on the president."

If Bush now moves forward with stem cell research he is no longer going against a dryly written statement of the American bishops, but rather a personal plea from the Pope himself.

Bush has to be seen as taking the pope's views seriously, and after the meeting he made it clear that he did. "I frankly do not care what the political polls say," Bush said. "I do care about the opinions of people, particularly someone as profound as the Holy Father."

Why does Bush care about the Catholic vote so much? At first glance, it doesn't seem that Catholics even agree with the pope on this issue.National polls show that most Catholics, and most Americans, support the research. An ABCNews/Beliefnet poll last month showed that Catholics support it 54% to 35%. Only 18% said religion was a major factor in forming their views. Allowing federal dollars to help come up with cures for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's looked like a smart, compassionate, and popular decision.

But to understand Republican anxiety one has to look not at Catholics in general but specifically "traditionalist" Catholics.

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Stem Cell Debate

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Stem Cell Debate

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