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A Catholic Wind in the White House

Bush also used Catholic doctrine and rhetoric to push his faith-based initiative, a movement to open federal funding to grass-roots religious groups that provide social services to their communities. Much of that initiative is based on the Catholic principle of "subsidiarity" -- the idea that local people are in the best position to solve local problems. "The president probably knows absolutely nothing about the Catholic catechism, but he's very familiar with the principle of subsidiarity," said H. James Towey, former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives who is now the president of a Catholic college in southwestern Pennsylvania. "It's the sense that the government is not the savior and that problems like poverty have spiritual roots."

Nonetheless, Bush is not without his Catholic critics. Some contend that his faith-based rhetoric is just small-government conservatism dressed up in religious vestments, and that his 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, calls the Bush administration's legacy 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," says Carr. "In domestic policy, the conservatism trumps the compassion."

And other prominent Catholics charge the president with disregarding Rome's teachings on the Iraq war and torture. But even when he has taken actions that the Vatican opposes, such as invading Iraq, Bush has shown deference to church teachings. Before he sent U.S. troops into Baghdad to topple Saddam Hussein, he met with Catholic "theocons" to discuss just-war theory. White House adviser Leonard Leo, who heads Catholic outreach for the Republican National Committee, says that 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 that he has professed a not-so-secret admiration for the church's discipline and is personally attracted to the breadth and unity of its teachings. A New York priest who has befriended the president said that Bush respects the way Catholicism starts at the foundation -- with the notion that the papacy is willed by God and that the pope is Peter's successor. "I think what fascinates him about Catholicism is its historical plausibility," says this priest. "He does appreciate the systematic theology of the church, its intellectual cogency and stability." The priest also says that Bush "is not unaware of how evangelicalism -- by comparison with Catholicism -- may seem more limited both theologically and historically."

Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, another evangelical with an affinity for Catholic teaching, says that the key to understanding Bush's domestic policy is to view it through the lens of Rome. Others go a step further.

Paul Weyrich, an architect of the religious right, detects in Bush shades of former British prime minister Tony Blair, who converted to Catholicism last year. "I think he is a secret believer," Weyrich says of Bush. Similarly, John DiIulio, Bush's first director of faith-based initiatives, has called the president a "closet Catholic." And he was only half-kidding.

daniel.burke@religionnews.com

Daniel Burke is a national correspondent for Religion News Service.


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