“During their meeting, the Holy Father and the President discussed a number of topics of common interest to the Holy See and the United States of America, including moral and religious considerations to which both parties are committed…”

The United States committed to “moral and religious considerations”? Considerations shared with a particular religious organization, the Roman Catholic Church? This was news, or seemed to be. But then last Thursday’s joint communiqué enumerated the considerations themselves: “the respect of the dignity of the human person; the defense and promotion of life, matrimony and the family; the education of future generations; human rights and religious freedom; sustainable development and the struggle against poverty and pandemics, especially in Africa.” Even an avowed anti-clerical secularist can say yes to dignity, life, matrimony, and the family in the abstract. The communique constructed a big secular-religious tent. Not really big news after all.

Still, the high level of the Bush-Benedict concord was noteworthy. Over the course of his visit, the Pope repeatedly praised American democracy and refrained from direct criticism of the war in Iraq. Bush, for his part, showered praise on the Pontiff. “When you look into Benedict XVI’s eyes what do you see?” an interviewer asked Bush. His response: “God.” By the end of the visit, an alliance seemed to be taking shape—healthy or unholy, depending on your point of view.

In one critical respect, Bush overreached. He sought to enlist Benedict in support of his particular understanding of freedom and the US obligation to spread it around the world. For Bush, and for the wider secular culture, freedom means, primarily, political liberty and democratic government. A religious conservative, Bush further believes that the US is called by God to promote this freedom around the world—with allies, when possible, and alone, when necessary. In the January 2003 State of the Union preceding the invasion of Iraq, Bush proclaimed that “Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation.” He continued: “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” The day after his meeting with the Pope at the White House, Bush aligned Benedict with his approach to freedom, God and—by extension—US foreign policy. “His Holiness believes that freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every man, woman and child on Earth,” he told the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.

But Benedict’s approach to freedom is different. There is significant common ground. Like Bush, Benedict acknowledges human rights and democratic governance as universal values. But for him political freedom is not God’s gift; it is a practical task, a way to protect and promote the inherent dignity and equality of human beings. Its advancement is a joint challenge to believers and non-believers alike, to be addressed through patient diplomacy and dialogue, not through the application of force. In his UN speech last Friday, Benedict noted “a multilateral consensus that continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few, whereas the world’s problems call for interventions in the form of collective action by the international community.” The promotion of political freedom, he suggested, was not the calling of any particular nation but a task for the human community and international law: “It is necessary to recognize the higher role played by rules and structures that are intrinsically ordered to promote the common good, and therefore to safeguard human freedom. These regulations do not limit freedom. On the contrary, they promote it when they prohibit behavior and actions which work against the common good, curb its effective exercise and hence compromise the dignity of every human person.”

Benedict does draw a link between God and freedom, but it is more theological than political. For the Pope, true freedom is the freedom to love, serve, and obey the Creator. In contrast to political freedom, a positive good attainable mainly through human endeavor and human reason, true freedom is a gift of God made possible through faith. Benedict made the point at a Mass in Yankee Stadium: “The Gospel teaches us that true freedom, the freedom of the children of God, is found only in the self-surrender which is part of the mystery of love,” he proclaimed. “Real freedom, then, is God’s gracious gift, the fruit of conversion to his truth, the truth which makes us free. And this freedom in truth brings in its wake a new and liberating way of seeing reality.” For Benedict, real freedom can find political expression, for example in the Church’s engagement in civil society and the public sphere. But it is not the same thing as political freedom. It is a gift of a different order.

Bush and Benedict do not really see eye to eye on God, freedom, and US foreign policy. A joint communiqué is designed to underscore commonalities. But in practice, different understandings of freedom inform very different approaches to world affairs. Much hangs on how politicians and religious leaders think about God’s gifts and their implications.