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CNN Special: Popes And Presidents

Aired April 20, 2014 - 14:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Fredricka Whitfield, live at the CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta. Here are the top stories we're following you for at this hour.

For the second day in a row, a suspected drone strike has killed al Qaeda in Yemen. Today, an air strike killed four suspected militants in southwest Yemen. Yesterday another strike killed 10 suspected al Qaeda members in a neighboring province. A source says Saturday's strike was targeting three well-known operatives linked to a terror training camp. Three civilians also killed in that attack.

The underwater robot searching for Flight 370 has now started its eighth mission. The Bluefin-21 has been scanning the sea floor of the southern Indian Ocean for signs of the plane, but so far nothing has been found. As many as 11 aircraft and 12 ships are also part of today's search, but they're also facing some rough weather as a cyclone moves into the area.

And tomorrow's Boston Marathon will have 9,000 more runners and twice as many police officers as last year. It's also expected to draw the biggest number of spectators ever. What you won't see? Backpacks, rucksacks, or bulky clothes. All have been banned following last year's bombing that killed three and wounded hundreds more.

I'm Fredricka Whitfield. A CNN special, POPES AND PRESIDENTS with Wolf Blitzer, begins right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: They are two of the most powerful offices on the planet. One elected in secret ballot by a handful of leaders in the Sistine Chapel. The spiritual head of 1.2 billion Catholics seated on the throne of Peter.

Barack Obama, 47 years old, will become the 44th president of the United States.

The other put in power by an electorate of millions of citizens in a grueling nationwide election. All for the right to sit in the Oval Office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.


BLITZER: The pope and the president. For more than 200 years, the politician behind the desk of the Oval Office and the bishop seated on the throne of Peter have marked history together, through war and peace, at times working hand in hand to rewrite their own story. CANDIDA MOSS, THEOLOGY PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME: You can imagine when the Declaration of Independence was signed, when America was founded, the papapacy must have been very worried.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He said I'm going to be president of the United States, I'm not going to be the Catholic president of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were casting about for any way back from the brink.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those shared convictions that communism could be overturned, the time in the 1980s, that was a radical notion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because of the relative weight and power of these two significant institutions, the Vatican and the United States of America, they're going to want to find some areas where they can move forward together.

BLITZER: The White House and the Vatican opening a new chapter with President Barack Obama and Pope Francis.

OBAMA: I have been really impressed so far with the way he's communicated what I think is the essence of the Christian faith.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No one thought except Barack Obama he was going to be president. And not even Cardinal Berollio thought he was going to be pope.

BLITZER: When Pope Francis and President Obama met at the Vatican, it was an encounter based on centuries of history in a place that has been equal parts political and spiritual.

MOSS: That pope has the authority of God on earth to tell his flock what to do. And that means both religious authority, and for a long period of the papapacy's history, political authority as well.

BLITZER: The relationship between the White House and the Vatican stretches back to the founding of the United States. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence sent shock waves around the world, reverberating even at the Vatican.

MOSS: And it seemed like a sort of rejection of papal authority.

BLITZER: Pope Pious VI inquired with the new country about appointing his own Catholic bishops in the United States, taking the matter to Benjamin Franklin, the U.S. ambassador to France. Congress responded to the request saying, "Being purely spiritual, it is without the jurisdiction and powers of Congress."

MOSS: The Vatican was able to select bishops in a foreign country without consulting the government. This is a remarkable moment. And you can imagine that the papacy was deeply disturbed by the Declaration of Independence, and then unimaginably cheered about how it played out for them.

BLITZER: From there, diplomatic relations between the Holy Seat and the United States ebbed and flowed until the Civil War.

MOSS: During the Civil War, the Confederacy writes to the Vatican, seeking legitimacy. For the Vatican, this is a very difficult situation. Here they have one part of a fractured country seeking their support. And they write back legitimatizing the Confederacy. It's a scandal. It's all over the Union newspapers. And this moment leads to the complete breakdown in ties between the U.S. and the Holy Seat.

BLITZER: That breakdown would last for almost a century.

JOHN CARR, INITIATIVE ON CATHOLIC SOCIAL THOUGHT AND PUBLIC LIFE: It's worth remembering for decades people in the United States were deeply suspicious of any relationship between the U.S. government and the Vatican.

BLITZER: Why do you think there were these long periods of a lull in communication?

NEWT GINGRICH, FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: There was a pretty deep period of intense anti-Catholicism through most of the 19th century.

MOSS: The reason many are suspicious of the Catholic Church is it makes a claim on people's lives. So you have the Vatican, this foreign, undemocratic, completely secretive organization making purchase on the hearts and souls of your citizens.

BLITZER: The relationship remained icy until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. While traveling across Europe after the First World War, Wilson had the first presidential papal audience, meeting with Pope Benedict the XV at the Vatican in 1109.

CARR: It was Woodrow Wilson who had the first meeting, and it was 40 more years before there was a second meeting.

BLITZER: In 1928, Al Smith, a popular Democrat and governor of New York, became the first Catholic to win a major party's nomination for president. His campaign was dogged by anti-Catholic attacks, and he was beaten badly in the election by Herbert Hoover.

CARDINAL THEODORE MCCARRICK, FORMER ARCHBISHOP OF WASHINGTON: It was not a democratic moment as we see how sometimes these things develop.

BLITZER: The tension between politics and personal piety became a major issue again in the 1960 campaign for the White House.

JOHN F. KENNEDY, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because I am a Catholic and no Catholic has ever been president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured.

BLITZER: John F. Kennedy's Catholic faith nearly derailed his 1960 presidential bid. To quell fears about his faith, he gave a major address to the Greater Houston Ministerial association in Texas.

MCCARRICK: He had to really make peace with different parts of our country. KENNEDY: I am the not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.

GINGRICH: He gave such an eloquent explanation of how you can be a patriotic American and a Catholic, and you could serve as president that he took a great deal of the poison out of the water.

BLITZER: Kennedy won the White House and became the first and so far only Catholic president of the United States. He kept a careful distance from the Vatican, but when the world was on the brink of nuclear war, he turned to the pope for help.

In October 1962, the Soviet Union started stockpiling nuclear missiles in Cuba. U.S. Navy ships formed a blockade around the island. Kennedy was in a stalemate with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

KENNEDY: I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine and provocative threat to world peace.

BLITZER: Through a back channel, the Kennedy White House reached out to the Vatican for help. Pope John XXIII agreed, delivering a message to Moscow and taking the microphones of Vatican Radio in French.

POPE JOHN XXIII (via translator): I beg heads of state not to remain insensitive to the cry of humanity. Peace, peace.

MCCARRICK: I've heard that got to Khrushchev, he said the pope is looking for peace and why don't you be the man of peace? He said, okay, I'll be the man of peace.

BLITZER: Days after the address, Khrushchev withdrew the missiles, putting an end to the crisis. Kennedy went on to meet the next pope, Paul VI, in the first and only meeting of a Catholic U.S. president and the pope. Kennedy sent a clear message, shaking hands with the pope instead of kissing his ring.

MCCARRICK: I think he felt that was a symbol that would be misinterpreted.

BLITZER: Because people would have said is he more loyal to the pope or to the United States?


BLITZER: That nod toward diplomacy would loom large over popes and presidents for more than a decade. But all that changed with the papal election of a young Polish cardinal ready to take on the world.


BLITZER: As the world was locked in the Cold War, the Vatican picked an unlikely soldier to lead the masses. White smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel in 1978, signaling to the world the cardinals had elected a new pope. Up to the balcony came Cardinal Karol Wojtyla from Poland, taking the name John Paul II.

GINGRICH: It's an astonishing moment. First of all, it's the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years. It is somebody from behind the Iron Curtain in a Soviet-dominated country. And it is one of the most charismatic and intellectually brilliant members of the Catholic Church.

BLITZER: John Paul II had a flair for the dramatic. The former actor lit up the world stage. In 1979, he traveled back to his homeland Poland, which was under an oppressive communist government. Newt and Callista Gingrich produced a documentary about that trip.

GINGRICH: In the (INAUDIBLE) pilgrimage in June of '79 is the event which shatters the communist grip on Poland. Here's a Slovak-Pole from Eastern Europe who is pope and he is reminding them that you have not been forgotten.

BLTIZER: How pivotal was Pope John Paul's visit to Poland?

MCCARRICK: He gave the people of Poland a chance. They saw a chance maybe to get out of this, to change of communism.

GINGRICH: The pope arrives in Warsaw, there are 3 million people at Mass in a public square. They look around and they say, there's more of us than there is of the government. Why should we be afraid of them? That's the kind of impact John Paul II had on his home country.

BLITZER: The pope's visit helped strengthen the solidarity labor movement in Poland, and a union leader named Lech Walesa. Months later, Pope John Paul II arrived in Washington.

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This afternoon, Pope John Paul and I met alone in the Oval Office and discussed the future.

BLITZER: That future included a shared foe for the Baptist president and the Polish pope: communism.

MOSS: Carter realizes he cannot himself as president interfere in Poland. John Paul II was deeply concerned. That concern, that shared concern of U.S. interests and papal interests aligning, that lays the ground for this lengthy papacy of John Paul II that stands the Cold War and allows the U.S. government and the Holy Seat to essentially put aside other differences and work together for the undermining of communism.

BLITZER: President Carter wrote in his notes during the private meeting, "In Poland, the church is stronger than the government.

PATRICK KELLY, DIRECTOR, BLESSED JOHN PAUL II SHRINE: President meets the pope. There is a gift exchange.

BLITZER: Patrick Kelly is the director of the John Paul II Shrine.

KELLY: John Paul II is able to lay that groundwork and to tell President Carter about the situation in Poland, which he was intimately familiar with. And then President Reagan comes to office, and that relationship blossoms. John Paul II and President Reagan shared convictions that communism could be overturned in central and eastern Europe.

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Central message of all time is not hatred, but love.

BLITZER: The election of Ronald Reagan marked the beginning of one of the closest relationships between a pope and a president.

MCCARRICK: These great issues - communism was a great issue.

BLITZER: Of course.

MCCARRICK: They were very much on the same page, and they were very much friends. This great country and this great church are going to try our best to bring freedom.

BLITZER: What was it about the relationship between John Paul and Ronald Reagan that made it work so well?

GINGRICH: I think they genuinely liked each other. And I think they had a deep sense of mutual commitment to freedom.

CALLISTA GINGRICH, NEWT GINGRICH'S WIFE: Both of them loved life. They loved people. They loved the outdoors. Both had been actors.

MOSS: They were both underdogs, you might say. Reagan was able to persuade John Paul II that nuclear armament was actually not an impediment to peace. Having convinced John Paul of that, he was able to get John Paul not to oppose nuclear armament and not to speak out against U.S. interests.

BLITZER: Reagan and John Paul met four times over the course of their tenure, often alone and speaking in English. For the first time, the U.S. opened an embassy to the Holy Sea and stationed an ambassador there.

But as close as diplomatic ties were between the countries, the two men were bound even closer by something few can relate to: an assassin's bullet.

GINGRICH: Both had been shot and nearly killed within weeks of each other in 1981.

BLITZER: Reagan was struck in Washington.

ANNOUNCER: Several shots rang out.

BLITZER: John Paul in St. Peter's Square.

GINGRICH: I think they felt very strongly that God had spared them for some larger mission. I think there's this very weird moment in the summer of '81 when both these guys had been shot. And they both survived. And I think that really drew them close together.

BLITZER: Their efforts were often in parallel, though not explicitly working together.

CARR: I don't think the relationships between the Holy Sea and the United States can really depend on personalities. There's too much at stake.

KELLY: There was no alliance, but there was a shared conviction borne out of a sense for the dignity of the human person, the priority of human rights. Both saw Poland as key to the struggle against communist oppression. The Church is very careful to stay away from any alliance. But I think there are certainly shared principles.

BLITZER: In Poland the communist government fell in the solidarity movement. In Germany, the Berlin wall came down. Somewhere in Vatican City and Washington, two leaders were cheered by the role they played individually and together.

MOSS: In the long view, it's a mistake to think that popes and presidents will always get along. You cannot have a military power that will always get along with an institution that is essentially pro-peace. And to an extent, we've been spoiled by this relationship between John Paul II and Reagan.

BLITZER: In the coming years, John Paul's relationship with the White House would be tested again with the United States facing another war.


BLITZER: There are few global figures who loomed as large as Pope John Paul II. His papacy spanned five U.S. presidents.

KELLY: They would typically meet alone. And of course John Paul II could speak English, so there didn't need even to be a translator.

BLITZER: The pope and the president saw eye to eye on many issues. But when it came to war and peace, the president often got an earful from the pontiff. In 2003, the United States was bracing for war with Iraq. John Paul dispatched Cardinal Piolaggi to the White House with a letter for President George W. Bush and a strong message. Stand down.

MCCARRICK: The president, I guess, was under a lot of pressure, and he did not welcome the fact that the Holy Father was so strongly against going to war.

BLITZER: Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was archbishop of Washington at the time.

MCCARRICK: I went with him. In fact, I was going to go into the meeting with him, but we got a sense the president would not be happy with the meeting.

BLITZER: John Carr worked for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

CARR: He went in and tried to make the case and handed the letter to the president. And the president gave the letter to an aide. And in that letter were the warnings of the Holy Father to what might happen if the United States invaded Iraq. And sadly, almost all of those things have happened.

BLITZER: The impression we got was that the president was a little short with him.

CARR: He was told when he left the meeting that he could not meet with the White House press corps to explain what the Holy Father asked him to communicate. And that he thought was very unfortunate and really unprecedented. And he set up his own press conference to deliver that message.

MCCARRICK: He came to the National Shrine. I was with him. And he made a statement then. It was very clear statement. He was very disappointed, as the Holy Father would be very disappointed.

GINGRICH: I think that George W. Bush had enormously deep respect for the Church and in particular for John Paul II, but he also felt as president that he had an obligation to do what he thought was right. And there was a genuine disagreement, deep disagreement.

BLITZER: Despite their deep disagreements over the war, the president and Pope John Paul II maintained a close relationship. A year later, President Bush even awarded the pontiff with Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award. Over the course of two terms, President Bush met with two popes: John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, welcoming Benedict to the White House.

BLITZER: You were there on the South Lawn of the White House when Pope Benedict was there. What sticks out in your mind to this day about that historic moment?

CALLISTA GINGRICH: My overwhelming memory of the arrival ceremony at the White House is really how joyful everybody was and how happy and proud the President and Mrs. Bush were to host the head of the Catholic Church.

BLITZER: Pope Benedict seemed to relish his time in Washington.

MCCARRICK: He loved America very much. I think he still does.

BLITZER: He made stops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the Catholic University of America where I met him. In 2009, President Obama brought his family to the Vatican to meet Pope Benedict.

OBAMA: Sasha was still pretty young at the time. They see the Sistine Chapel and they're going through these various chambers. And each time she'd see somebody dressed up in the cloth, she'd say, is that the pope? Is that the pope. How about that guy over there? We said no, no, you'll know when it is finally the pope.

BLITZER: Pope Benedict's historic resignation paved the way for a new pope in 2013. Pope Francis took the world by storm. Everywhere had he went, he was mobbed by adoring crowds. President Obama hoped for a kindred spirit in Pope Francis with his emphasis on the poor and the marginalized.

Joshua Dubois was President Obama's director of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships.

So, you think there is a little shift going on from the relationship with the former pope and the current pope.

JOSHUA DUBOIS, OBAMA'S DIRECTOR OF FAITH-BASED AND NEIGHBORHOOD PARTNERSHIPS: Well, I think they have a deep, mutual concern for issues related to the poor, economic inequality and making sure that people can live lives of dignity.

BLITZER: But there are differences and there are sensitive issues in which these two men will disagree.

DUBOIS: They're very important issues. President Obama is pro-choice, Pope Francis is pro-life. President Obama supports marriage equality. Pope Francis does not. However, these are the type of men who are not going to let disagreement on two issues, even those two very important issues, prevent them from collaborating on many other things, including addressing economic inequality in the United States and around the world.

OBAMA: I've been incredibly moved by his compassion, his message of inclusion. I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him about the responsibilities we all share to care for the least of these, the poor.

GINGRICH: Pope Francis is a very, very clever man. He's pretty good at dealing with politicians. There are very, very big differences between the Obama administration secularism and where the pope is.

BLITZER: While their meeting was taking place at the Vatican, U.S. Catholic groups were fighting the administration in court over the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which they said violated their faith.

OBAMA: We actually didn't talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness. In fact, that really was not a topic of conversation.

BLITZER: Instead, the president and the pope focused their time on global conflict, poverty, and the president extended an invitation.

OBAMA: I invited and urged him to come visit the United States.

BLITZER: Simple words for a president in his second term and a pope just beginning his. But words that build upon a long and complicated relationship with much at stake. Between church and state, prayers and politics, popes and presidents.