KINDRED SPIRITS

A Catholic Wind in the White House

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By Daniel Burke
Sunday, April 13, 2008

Shortly after Pope Benedict XVI's election in 2005, President Bush met with a small circle of advisers in the Oval Office. As some mentioned their own religious backgrounds, the president remarked that he had read one of the new pontiff's books about faith and culture in Western Europe.

Save for one other soul, Bush was the only non-Catholic in the room. But his interest in the pope's writings was no surprise to those around him. As the White House prepares to welcome Benedict on Tuesday, many in Bush's inner circle expect the pontiff to find a kindred spirit in the president. Because if Bill Clinton can be called America's first black president, some say, then George W. Bush could well be the nation's first Catholic president.

This isn't as strange a notion as it sounds. Yes, there was John F. Kennedy. But where Kennedy sought to divorce his religion from his office, Bush has welcomed Roman Catholic doctrine and teachings into the White House and based many important domestic policy decisions on them.

"I don't think there's any question about it," says Rick Santorum, former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and a devout Catholic, who was the first to give Bush the "Catholic president" label. "He's certainly much more Catholic than Kennedy."

Bush attends an Episcopal church in Washington and belongs to a Methodist church in Texas, and his political base is solidly evangelical. Yet this Protestant 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.

"I used to say that there are more Catholics on President Bush's speechwriting team than on any Notre Dame starting lineup in the past half-century," said former Bush scribe -- and Catholic -- William McGurn.

Bush has also placed Catholics in prominent roles in the federal government and relied on Catholic tradition to make a public case for everything from his faith-based initiative to antiabortion 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," says Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and editor of the journal First Things who has tutored Bush in the church's social doctrines for nearly a decade.

In the late 1950s, Kennedy's Catholicism was a political albatross, and he labored to distance himself from his church. Accepting the Democratic nomination in 1960, he declared his religion "not relevant."

Bush and his administration, by contrast, have had no such qualms about their Catholic connections. At times, they've even 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 instruct the candidate on the church's 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 (an Episcopalian) asked former White House Catholic adviser Deal Hudson to find a priest to bless his West Wing 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," says Hudson.

To conservative Catholics, that meant holding the line on same-sex marriage, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research, and working to limit abortion in the United States and abroad while nominating judges who would eventually outlaw it. To make the case, Bush has often borrowed Pope John Paul II's mantra of promoting a "culture of life." Many Catholics close to him believe that the approximately 300 judges he has seated on the federal bench -- most notably Catholics John Roberts and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court -- may yet be his greatest legacy.


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