Pope and President
The recent meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and President Barack Obama had all the markings of an encounter between two well-acquainted statesmen; it was almost hard to believe that this was their first face-to-face engagement. Some of their unexpected familiarity is due to the diligent work of Vatican diplomats, who in recent years have done much behind the scenes to engage American officials and to establish dialogue between American public figures and their Vatican counterparts.
The relationship between pope and president has not always been thus. Woodrow Wilson was the first president to meet a pope, Benedict XV, after the close of World War I in 1919. Four decades would pass before another such meeting, when Dwight D. Eisenhower met John XXIII at the Vatican in 1959. All told, popes and presidents have only met a total of 26 times; 17 of those meetings took place in the Vatican, and the vast majority during the long reign of John Paul II.
The political relationship between the United States and the Holy See has until recent years been an uneasy one. Formal diplomatic relations have existed for only a quarter-century, and there was no official contact at all from 1870 (the loss of the Papal States) until 1939, when Franklin Roosevelt made Myron Taylor his personal representative to the Vatican. For that reason, the sight of an American president happily and respectfully greeting the pope is an occasion for celebration on more than one level.
Whatever the shape of the final health care reform bill, which is expected to be worked out by both houses of Congress and sent to the president this fall, two measures have already been achieved by the Obama administration that will significantly improve the nation’s health. The first concerns insurance for children in low-income families; the second addresses smoking, particularly tobacco products and ads designed to attract teens.
President Obama signed an extension of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in February, after months of stalling by the Bush administration. The extension enables states to cover the health and dentistry needs of more than four million children by 2013. The program assists children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford private insurance. The extension also allows states to cover legal immigrants, particularly pregnant women and children under age 21. Previous policy barred legal immigrants from receiving both Medicaid and S-chip until they had lived in the United States for at least five years.
More than 400,000 Americans die each year from tobacco-related products. In June, Mr. Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which gives the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate nicotine levels in tobacco, to ban candy and fruit flavorings, to prevent cigarette advertising aimed toward children and teens and to bar ads near schools and playgrounds.
The two bills advance major goals of health care reform: expanded coverage and preventive medicine; they are also “deficit neutral” and, in the second case, ingeniously just: The costs of the S-chip expansion are to be offset by an increase in the tobacco tax.
Mere Pious Legend?
“This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that they are the mortal remains of the Apostle Paul,” said Pope Benedict XVI at the beginning of July. The pope was referring to findings of the first-ever scientific tests on a recently unearthed sarcophagus, which was located under the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, traditionally considered the final resting place of the saint. Atop the tomb, which dates from at least A.D. 390, was a marble slab inscribed with the words “Paul Apostle Martyr” in Latin. Inside the sarcophagus, in addition to the bone fragments, were grains of incense and a piece of purple linen with gold ornamentation.
Skeptics sometimes scoff at “traditional” sites associated with the lives of the saints and the life of Christ, dismissing them as “pious legends.” About some relics and artifacts there will always be uncertainty. Yet modern archeological tools (like carbon-dating) have shown that many such traditions may have some basis in fact. In the 1950s, for example, excavations under the Basilica of St. Peter uncovered the remains of a man in his 60s or 70s near a shrine dating from the first or second century. Scripture scholars also note that members of Jesus’ extended family would have likely remained in Galilee after his earthly ministry and could have easily directed early pilgrims to important sites in Jesus’ life. The followers of Christ, and admirers of the saints, would have revered such places and would have naturally passed on their locations to later generations. Pious legends, then, are sometimes more than just pious, and more than simply legendary.