A peace envoy for Pope John Paul II met with President Bush Wednesday and urged him to step back from the brink of war with Iraq. The exchange of views was polite, but led to no apparent changes in Mr. Bush's position.
Cardinal Pio Laghi, a personal friend of the Bush family, met with the president at the White House Wednesday for less than one hour. Speaking to reporters afterwards, the Cardinal described the closed-door meeting as frank and clear.
"I told the president that today, on Ash Wednesday, Catholics around the world are following the pope's request to pray and fast for peace these days," Cardinal Laghi said.
To Catholics, Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, the 40-day period of Christian penance and spiritual renewal leading up to Easter.
Cardinal Laghi said the Vatican believes any war against Iraq that does not have United Nations approval is immoral. "It's illegal, it's unjust. It's all that you could say," he said.
The envoy emphasized that the pope believes there are still ways to resolve the Iraq crisis peacefully. But he added that the Vatican is not trying to tell the president what to do.
"If I have persuaded him, you have to ask him," Cardinal Laghi said.
In Rome, the pope urged the world's one billion Roman Catholics to "strengthen their communion with God and their brothers" in the face of what he said could be a dramatic worldwide conflict. Back in Washington, President Bush made no public comment during or after the meeting with the Vatican envoy. White House officials later said the president spoke of the importance of disarming Saddam Hussein and of protecting innocent Iraqi people.
President Bush is a Methodist, but he has taken pains throughout his presidency to court Catholic voters, who make up a quarter of the U.S. electorate.
White House officials pointed out that President Bush and the envoy also discussed abortion and cloning - two issues on which the administration and the Vatican generally agree.