WASHINGTON -- The pope and president did not mention the Iraq War during the enthusiastic
birthday welcome Bush gave Benedict XVI in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday. Instead,
the president reached for common ground in his denunciation of "the dictatorship of relativism" and his respect for human life.
Bush referred to the "dictatorship" in his welcoming remarks. It is a favorite phrase of the pope's, meaning a cultural tendency to deny natural law, and reject rules about good and evil.
The crowd of 9,000 invitees -- one of the largest ever brought on to the White House grounds -- applauded spontaneously when Bush said:
"In a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred and that each of us is willed, each of us is loved. And your message that each of us is willed, each of us is loved, and each of us is necessary."
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope in 2003 was strongly opposed to the Iraq War, and remains so now that the conflict has entered its sixth year.
Benedict and Bush may have discussed their differences during a 45-minute private talk in the oval office.
A statement issued by the White House later said only that they shared "their common concern for the situation in Iraq and particularly the precarious state of Christian communities there and elsewhere in the region. The Holy Father and the president expressed hope for an end to violence and for a prompt and comprehensive solution to the crises which afflict the region."
Invitations to the reception were among the most sought-after cards in town among conservatives and Catholics. The Rose Garden event and the pope's speech at the United Nations on Friday are the only purely secular events during his American visit.
So Benedict stayed with generalities about moral discipline in his speech here.
"Freedom is not only a gift," the pope said, "but also a summons to personal responsibility
... The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline,
sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate.
"Freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must
constantly be won over for the cause of good. Few have understood this as clearly as the late
Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in
his native Poland and in eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows, time and again,
that "in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation," and a democracy without values
can lose its very soul.
"Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed
in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent "indispensable supports' of