Bush Finds a Friendly Audience at Catholic Prayer Breakfast

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ President Bush preached to the choir at the National Catholic Prayer breakfast Friday, promoting the “dignity of life,” parochial schools and immigration.

“You know how to make a Methodist feel right at home,” Bush said, addressing the 1,700 Catholics in attendance, including several bishops and Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

A number of other conservative powerbrokers were on hand, including several cabinet members and former Sen. Fred Thompson, a possible Republican presidential candidate.

“There’s something powerful to be said when Catholics gather together in prayer and fellowship to express their gratitude for the faith and share the joy and love of the faith,” Joe Cella, the breakfast’s founder and president of its board, said afterwards.

But some Catholics say the annual event is more about Republican politics than the church.

“Let’s be honest, this event would be more accurately labled the `Republican Catholic Strategy Breakfast,”’ said Chris Korzen of Catholics United for the Common Good, a liberal social justice group.

“Its organizers have a clear track-record of putting partisanship above church teaching. My concern is that the general public is looking at this and thinking that its affiliated with the Catholic Church,” he said. “It’s not.”

Cella vehemently denied any partisan tinge to the event.

“If (Korzen) is suggesting that it’s a strategy breakfast, I’d like to ask what strategies have come out of it,” Cella said in an interview. “It’s open to all Catholics.” Cella heads Fidelis, a lay conservative Catholic group active in politics.

While the breakfast was founded by Catholics who consider themselves faithful to church teaching _ especially on abortion and other “life” issues _ even Catholics who dissent from the church are welcome, Cella said. He offered Sens. John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, both Massachusetts Democrats, as examples.

Cella and Leonard Leo, a member of the prayer breakfast’s board and former Catholic Outreach Director for the Republican National Committee, said Democrats had been invited, but weren’t sure any attended the event Friday.

The idea to host a distinctly Catholic prayer breakfast _ in addition to the annual National Prayer Breakfast held each February _ was sparked in 2003, while reading the late Pope John Paul II’s exhortations for Catholics to share their faith, Cella said.

Bush has addressed the breakfast each year since 2004 because he shares the church’s stance against gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research and abortion, Cella said, not because of his political party.

“It would be really hard to invite a president or any speaker if they did not support the church’s social teaching,” Cella acknowledged.

Though the breakfast is not run by the Catholic church, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is listed as a sponsor and a number of Catholic bishops attended, including Vatican envoy Archbishop Pietro Sambi and Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who gave the keynote address.

Wuerl exhorted fellow Catholics to “build a just and good society.”

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful.” he asked, “if, 50 or a hundred years from now,” people look back on this generation and say “they took the church’s moral teachings and fashioned a society where all human life is … respected and protected.”

KRE/LF END BURKE

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