High Homage to the Pope; but Clinton, Elder Bush Disagreed with Pontiff on Issues

Article excerpt

Byline: Bill Sammon, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …