- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

VATICAN CITY — President Bush, joined by two of his predecessors, knelt in prayer before the body of Pope John Paul II yesterday after former President Bill Clinton said the pontiff “may have a mixed legacy.”

En route to Rome aboard Air Force One, Mr. Clinton and former President George Bush recalled their disagreements with the pope over the Gulf War and social issues. But both credited the pontiff, who died Saturday, with helping to defeat communism.

“He also centralized authority in the papacy again and enforced a very conservative theological doctrine,” Mr. Clinton told reporters during his first flight on Air Force One since his presidency ended. “There will be debates about that.

“The number of Catholics increased by 250 million on his watch, but the numbers of priests didn’t,” he added. “He’s like all of us — he may have a mixed legacy.”

Mr. Clinton obliquely contrasted the current president, who opposes abortion and supports the death penalty, with the pope.

“He really did try to have a consistent ethic that was by his definition, pro-life — he was against capital punishment and abortion,” he said of the pontiff.

The three presidents, along with first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, knelt a few feet from the pope’s body in St. Peter’s Basilica yesterday. As they prayed, thousands of mourners continued to stream past the body to pay their last respects.

But Italian officials said they would have to cut off the enormous line of pilgrims waiting to see John Paul’s body, disappointing tens of thousands of mourners.

Authorities told reporters in Rome that the lines were already too long for those at the rear to see the pontiff’s remains before the viewing in St. Peter’s Basilica ends at 10 tonight.

Tomorrow, Mr. Bush will become the first sitting U.S. president to attend a pope’s funeral, which is expected to draw up to 2 million mourners. The president did not speak to reporters en route to Rome, deferring to his predecessors for all public comments.

The pope was lavishly praised by Mr. Clinton and the elder President Bush, who said the pontiff “is in heaven.” But the elder Bush, who spoke with reporters just before Mr. Clinton, also recalled disagreements with the pope.

“He differed with us on Desert Storm,” he said. “He has that standard position on the use of force. I wish I’d asked him about the concept of a just war.”

Mr. Clinton also said that although the pope “opposed the Iraq war, I think he favored what we were doing in Bosnia and Kosovo.”

Unlike the current president’s pre-emptive removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Mr. Clinton said he ordered military action in the Balkans to halt genocide.

“Defensive wars, if you will, are wars in defense of innocent people being slaughtered,” he said. He added that the pope “thought that you shouldn’t initiate war, even against oppressive people, unless there was some immediate human tragedy pending.”

When asked whether the pope helped to topple communism, Mr. Bush said, “Any time you stand up against communism, as he certainly did in Poland, I would say absolutely.

“But I don’t think he was plotting: ‘Well, what do we do now to move these Soviet divisions out of Eastern Europe?’ — or something like that.”

Mr. Clinton agreed, saying the pope “played a role in hastening the end of communism in central Europe.”

Mr. Clinton, who is pro-choice and who vetoed a ban on partial-birth abortions, acknowledged that he and the pontiff did not always see eye to eye.

John Paul was greeted by Mr. Clinton at a St. Louis airport in 1999 and used the occasion to criticize U.S. abortion laws, comparing them to the practice of slavery.

At the time, the pontiff decried “a culture that seeks to declare entire groups of human beings — the unborn, the terminally ill, the handicapped and others considered ‘unuseful’ — to be outside the boundaries of legal protection.”

“Obviously we had a few disagreements over policy, as he did with my Catholic friends inside the Church over whether there should be more centralized or decentralized authority,” Mr. Clinton said. “And that’s a big question the Church has to confront again today.”

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