The Pope opened the doors of his hilltop summer residence to President Bush today for their first meeting, a closed-door session underpinned by touchy issues of capital punishment and embryonic stem cell research.
First lady Laura Bush, a Methodist like her husband, and 19-year-old daughter Barbara followed old Catholic tradition and covered their hair with black lace mantillas for their papal audience at the lakeside Castel Gandolfo in the foothills south of Rome.
The President, putting the weekend Genoa summit and its violent protests behind him, offered the stooped and elderly John Paul a hearty handshake before the pair sat down to talks in the library.
Bush did not plan to ask about a thorny decision awaiting back home: whether to permit federal funds for potentially breakthrough medical research on stem cells from human embryos.
‘‘He’s very familiar, as are most people, with the position of the church,’’ said presidential counsellor Karen Hughes.
The Roman Catholic hierarchy is staunchly opposed to such studies because they involve the destruction of surplus embryos being discarded by fertility clinics.
In May, John Paul asked Bush to spare the life of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The President refused and McVeigh was executed.
Bush’s papal audience promised to be much more cordial than any former President Bill Clinton ever enjoyed primarily because this new American president shares John Paul’s opposition to abortion rights.
In an unusually sharp attack, the Vatican had condemned Clinton’s veto of a bill banning certain late-term abortions as ‘‘shameful.’’
In contrast, it welcomed the new administration’s move to bar US funds to international family planning groups involved in abortion.