At the papal bier, new dogmas replace the old

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How the world turns. The sight of President George Bush - not to mention his father President George Bush Snr and his predecessor President Bill Clinton - kneeling in prayer before the body of the Pope would, not that long ago, have caused the most almighty stir back home. After all, the men are, respectively, a Methodist, Episcopalian and a Baptist - good Protestants whose dogma still, in theory, regards prayers for the dead as a heretical Catholic abomination along with transubstantiation, purgatory and other arcane matters for which, in the past, men and women were prepared to kill and die.

How the world turns. The sight of President George Bush - not to mention his father President George Bush Snr and his predecessor President Bill Clinton - kneeling in prayer before the body of the Pope would, not that long ago, have caused the most almighty stir back home. After all, the men are, respectively, a Methodist, Episcopalian and a Baptist - good Protestants whose dogma still, in theory, regards prayers for the dead as a heretical Catholic abomination along with transubstantiation, purgatory and other arcane matters for which, in the past, men and women were prepared to kill and die.

And not so long ago. Today, Mr Bush will become the first incumbent president to attend a pope's funeral to pay his respects to the man he called "Holy Father" - a phrase which will not have gone down well among fundamentalists in his Texas hinterland. Every dogma may have its day, but this is welcome evidence that the era of such sectarianism is passing. Having said that, the unhappy evidence is that they are being replaced by dogmas which may cross denominational fault-lines but which are no less oppressive in their own way.

What unites the evangelical fundamentalists of the US Bible Belt with their more intellectually sophisticated co-religionists in Rome is a credo about "life" issues which seeks to combine notions about contraception, abortion, stem cells and euthanasia into a single stream which subjects scientific empiricism to a religious straitjacket which does no service to the complexities of life in the 21st century. Playing, as it does, to America's 65 million Catholics and its 40 million evangelicals, it also handily provides a considerable constituency of support for Mr Bush.

The only pity is that he, and they all, did not treat everything the Pope said with equal moral seriousness. During their final meeting last June, when Mr Bush presented the Pope with the Medal of Freedom, the pontiff responded by reading a statement condemning the President's military adventures in Iraq. The truth is that John Paul II's pronouncements were embraced by many only when he said what they wanted to hear.

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