By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 21, 2005
President Bush praised Pope Benedict XVI and "the Catholic contribution to American freedom" yesterday at a Catholic prayer breakfast, an event emblematic of the rising clout of religious groups in the nation's capital.
Modeled on the Protestant-led congressional prayer breakfast that has been held each February for more than half a century, the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast is in its second year. It attracted 1,600 people, 14 members of Congress and the president to a packed hotel ballroom where waiters in black tie served scrambled eggs to activists who wore sweat shirts that read "You can't be Catholic and pro-abortion."
The Catholic breakfast is the latest addition to an increasingly crowded calendar of Washington events that mix religion and politics, including the evangelical Protestant National Day of Prayer, the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, the Reform Jewish Consultation on Conscience, the Family Research Council's annual Washington Briefing, and the Roman Catholic Red Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral.
All these events routinely draw members of Congress and senior administration officials who have become adept at finessing the rituals of other faiths -- such as when Bush, a Methodist, shuffled his papers yesterday while others crossed themselves.
Organizing the Catholic breakfast, with a budget of more than $100,000, is a full-time job for Joseph Cella, 35, a veteran political campaigner from Pleasant Lake, Mich. He previously was executive director of the Ave Maria List, a Catholic political action committee that worked to defeat then-Senate minority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) last year.
Cella said in an interview that the breakfast was a nonpartisan event with "no political purpose." Its sole aim, he said, "is to provide an opportunity for prayer, fellowship and charity." Although Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.) was the only Democratic member of Congress in attendance, "he is welcome to bring more people from across the aisle next year," Cella said.
Joseph Conn, a spokesman for the Washington advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the prayer breakfasts are thinly disguised lobbying efforts. "These events give politicians a chance to cater to their political base, and they give religious groups a chance to curry favor with elected officials and advance their political agenda," he said.
For Bush, yesterday's breakfast was an opportunity to thank Catholics, who gave him 52 percent of their votes in November, compared with 47 percent for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a Catholic who supports abortion rights. Bush told the crowd, as he does at all religious events, that he was grateful for their prayers, and he reiterated his support for "a culture of life" that rejects abortion and euthanasia.
"Pope Benedict XVI recently warned that when we forget these truths, we risk sliding into a dictatorship of relativism, where we can no longer defend our values," Bush said. "Catholics and non-Catholics alike can take heart in the man who sits on the chair of Saint Peter, because he speaks with affection about the American model of liberty rooted in moral conviction."
The keynote speaker was Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who said during the presidential campaign that voting for a candidate who supports abortion rights would be a sin that must be confessed before receiving Holy Communion.
"When a public official claims to be Catholic but then says he can't offer his beliefs about the sanctity of the human person as the basis of law, it always means one of two things: That person is either very confused or he's very evasive," Chaput told the prayer breakfast. "All law is the imposition of somebody's beliefs on somebody else."