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Is George Bush leading America’s first truly Catholic presidency?

c. 2008 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ Shortly after Pope Benedict XVI’s election three years ago, President Bush huddled with a small circle of advisers and speechwriters in the Oval Office. As talk briefly turned to religion, the president mentioned reading one of the new pontiff’s books about faith and culture in Western Europe. Save […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ Shortly after Pope Benedict XVI’s election three years ago, President Bush huddled with a small circle of advisers and speechwriters in the Oval Office. As talk briefly turned to religion, the president mentioned reading one of the new pontiff’s books about faith and culture in Western Europe.

Save one other soul, Bush was the only non-Catholic in the room, and it did not go unnoticed. Even the president laughed at the thought.

“I used to say that there are more Catholics on President Bush’s speechwriting team than any Notre Dame starting lineup in the past half-century,” said former Bush scribe William McGurn, a Catholic who was part of the meeting.

The 2005 West Wing meeting was just one indicator of how a Methodist president has surrounded himself with Roman Catholic intellectuals, speechwriters, professors, priests, bishops and politicians. These Catholics _ and thus Catholic social teaching _ have for the past eight years been shaping Bush’s speeches, policies and legacy to a degree perhaps unprecedented in U.S. history.

In fact, with all due respect to John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first and only Catholic president, some have begun to call the Bush White House the first truly Catholic presidency.

Bush has placed Catholics in prominent roles in the federal government and relied on Catholic tradition to make a public case for everything from the faith-based initiative to anti-abortion legislation. He has wedded Catholic intellectualism with evangelical political savvy to forge a powerful electoral coalition.

“There is an awareness in the White House that the rich Catholic intellectual tradition is a resource for making the links between Christian faith, religiously grounded moral judgments and public policy,” said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and editor of the journal First Things. Known to the president as “Father Richard,” he has tutored Bush in the church’s social doctrines for nearly a decade.

“Obviously, they’ve availed themselves of it to a considerable degree.”

Now, as the president prepares to welcome Benedict to the White House on Wednesday (April 16), many in Bush’s Catholic inner circle say the pope will find in the president a kindred spirit. Bush may, in fact, be more influenced by the Vatican and his Catholic advisers than he is by his solidly evangelical base.

“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and a devout Catholic. “That’s why I called him the first Catholic president; he’s certainly much more Catholic than Kennedy.”


Recently, others have expressed similar sentiments.

Michael Gerson, another former top Bush speechwriter, says the key to understanding Bush’s domestic policy is to see it through the lens of Rome. John DiIulio, Bush’s first director of faith-based initiatives, called the president a “closet Catholic” _ only half in jest.

And Paul Weyrich, an architect of the religious right, sees in Bush shades of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who joined the Catholic Church last year. “I think he is a secret believer,” Weyrich said.

Bush is not, of course, a Roman Catholic. He has not professed membership in the church or received its sacraments. He attends an Episcopal church while in Washington and belongs to a Methodist church in Texas, according to the White House. Moreover, prominent Catholics say the president has disregarded Catholic teachings on the war, torture and poverty, among other issues.

But even when he has taken actions opposed by the Vatican, such as waging the Iraq War, Bush has shown deference to church teachings, according to Catholics in his intellectual inner sanctum.


White House adviser Leonard Leo, who heads Catholic outreach for the Republican National Committee, said Bush “has engaged in dialogue with Catholics and shared perspectives with Catholics in a way I think is fairly unique in American politics.”

Moreover, people close to Bush say he has professed a not-so-secret admiration for the church’s discipline, and is personally attracted by the breadth and unity of its teachings. A New York priest who has befriended the president said Bush respects the way Catholicism starts at the foundation _ that the papacy is willed by God and the pope is Peter’s successor.

“I think what fascinates him about Catholicism is its historical plausibility,” said the priest, who asked not to be named due the private nature of their conversations. “He does appreciate the systematic theology of the church, its intellectual cogency and stability.”

The priest also said, “While (Bush’s) prayer life is deep and sincere, he is not unaware of how evangelicalism _ by comparison with Catholicism _ may seem more limited both theologically and historically.”


For Kennedy, Catholicism was a political albatross, and he labored to distance his office from his church. Accepting the Democratic nomination in 1960, Kennedy deemed his religion “not relevant.”

Bush and his administration have had no such qualms about their Catholic connections, and at times seemed to brandish them for political purposes. Even before he got to the White House, Bush and his political guru Karl Rove invited Catholic intellectuals to Texas to tutor the candidate on Catholic social teachings.

In January 2001, Bush’s first public outing as president in the nation’s capital was a dinner with Washington’s then-archbishop, Theodore McCarrick. A few months later, Rove solicited former White House adviser Deal Hudson to find a priest to bless his White House office.

“There was a very self-conscious awareness that religious conservatives had brought Bush into the White House and that (the administration) wanted to do what they had been mandated to do,” said Hudson.


To conservative Catholics, that meant holding the line against gay marriage, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research, working to limit abortions in the U.S. and abroad while nominating judges who would uphold efforts to outlaw it. To make the case, Bush often borrowed Pope John Paul II’s mantra of promoting a “culture of life.”

“He really deserves an `A’ in that area. It’s been extremely difficult and he’s done a good job,” said White House adviser and Princeton University professor Robert P. George.

Leo and other Catholics say the approximately 300 judges Bush has seated on the federal bench _ most notably Catholics John Roberts and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court _ may yet be his greatest legacy.

Bush also used Catholic doctrine and rhetoric to push his faith-based initiative, a movement to open federal funding to grassroots religious groups that provide social services to their communities. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity _ that local people are in the best position to solve local problems _ resonated deeply with the president, said H. James Towey, former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

“The president probably knows absolutely nothing about the Catholic catechism, but he’s very familiar with the principle of subsidiarity,” said Towey, now the president of a St. Vincent College, a Catholic school in Latrobe, Pa. “It’s the sense that the government is not the savior and that problems like poverty have spiritual roots.”

But critics contend that Bush’s faith-based rhetoric is just small-government conservatism dressed up in religious vestments.

“It baffles me that a president that would not support an increase in spending for children’s health care could be seen as basing his policies on Catholic social thought,” said Catholic writer and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.

Other Catholics say Bush’s economic policies, including tax cuts for the rich, have created a wealth gap that clearly upends the Catholic principle of solidarity with the poor.

John Carr, a top public policy director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Bush administration’s legacy is a “tale of two policies.”

“The best of the Bush administration can be seen in their work in development assistance on HIV/AIDS in Africa,” Carr said. “In domestic policy, the conservatism trumps the compassion.”


Meanwhile, the Iraq war, which Bush launched even after John Paul dispatched a veteran diplomat to try to dissuade him, overshadows attempts to place Bush in line with Catholic teachings, according to Carr and others.

“Evangelicals and Catholics who looked for leadership from the administration on the question of the unborn, the family and poverty,” Carr said, “they got the war and tax cuts.”


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