Building Ties With Catholics A Bush Priority

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

During a private meeting in the White House living quarters last year with the Roman Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, President Bush expressed passionate appreciation for the church's defense of human life on abortion and other issues.

As recounted by former speechwriter Bill McGurn, who was at the meeting, Bush told Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun that "the church is the rock -- it is the only thing that can withstand the wave of secularization, which says you can kill someone else to make your own life more convenient. He said the Catholic Church must never give in on this."

To McGurn, a Catholic, it was striking that a Protestant president would see the Catholic Church as a rock. But it was also characteristic of a politician who has come to identify closely with Catholics and the powerful men who have led the church during his tenure in the White House.

A sign of this respect will come this afternoon, when Bush and first lady Laura Bush greet Pope Benedict XVI after his plane lands at Andrews Air Force Base, the first time in his seven years in office that the president will leave the White House to receive a visiting foreign dignitary. Bush will host Benedict tomorrow for a private 45-minute meeting in the Oval Office after an elaborate official arrival ceremony featuring soprano Kathleen Battle singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." About 9,000 invited guests are expected on the South Lawn, more than were present for the arrival ceremony for Queen Elizabeth II last May.

In an interview last week with the Eternal Word Television Network, a Catholic news outlet, Bush said the robust White House welcome for Benedict reflects the pope's immense significance as a religious and moral leader. "I [also] subscribe to his notion that . . . there's right and wrong in life, that moral relativism has a danger of undermining the capacity to have more hopeful and free societies," Bush said. "I want to honor his convictions."

Building strong ties with Catholics in general -- and Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in particular -- has been a major element of the president's agenda since the 2000 political campaign. Former aides say his "compassionate conservative" agenda and emphasis on a "culture of life" have been shaped by the teachings of the church, while his political advisers have seen an opportunity to wrest Catholic voters from the Democratic Party.

But recently these efforts have met with the same mixed success Bush has experienced with other groups. In 2004, Republican identification ticked up among Catholics, and for the first time in exit polls dating to 1972, more Catholics by a narrow margin -- 38 to 36 percent -- called themselves Republicans than Democrats. But in the 2006 midterm elections, 41 percent identified as Democrats, 34 percent as Republicans. And that year, 55 percent of Catholics supported Democratic House candidates.

Bush's approval rating among Catholics stands at 33 percent in Washington Post-ABC News polling, matching his rating among the general public (Story, A4). At the start of the president's second term, 51 percent of Catholics approved of the way he was doing his job; the last time a majority of Catholics approved of his performance in office was three years ago.

"There's not one Catholic vote," said John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "Bush, with Karl Rove's help, targeted certain elements of the Catholic community very effectively, and they didn't try or were not effective with other parts of the Catholic community."

One source of tension with Catholics and the Vatican has been the Iraq war. During one of their meetings in Rome, in 2004, John Paul seemed to scold Bush over the conflict and the "deplorable events" connected to it. Catholic allies of the White House said they think the current pope has moved past that criticism and is focused primarily on the safety and security of the Christian minority inside Iraq, an issue they expect him to raise with Bush when they meet tomorrow.

"We're not living in 2003," said George Weigel, a prominent conservative Catholic theologian. "The Holy See, in its leadership positions, is in a very adult place -- they have turned the page, and I think the White House has turned the page. There is a shared goal -- namely, a stable, democratic Iraq that is safe for pluralism."

This will be the second time Bush has met with Benedict (he met with John Paul three times in Italy). When Bush and Benedict met for the first time, at the Vatican last June, among the subjects of conversation were efforts to address AIDS in Africa and religious liberty in China, Iraq and the broader Middle East, according to Rove, who traveled with the president before leaving the White House later in the summer.

"They know the president has spoken out publicly and privately about religious freedom in China, and they are appreciative of that," Rove said yesterday.

Some Catholic intellectuals say Bush and the pope have a different outlook on a number of issues, including how aggressively government should try to help the poor, but they do not expect to see such differences surface when the two leaders meet tomorrow.

"While they are going to have strong differences, I don't think they are going to have a confrontation," said John-Peter Pham, a James Madison University professor and former Vatican diplomat. The pope "is enough of a scholar to recognize that with all the faults and defects you could have, especially the whole issue of invading Iraq, that the United States presents a model for human rights, for good relations between church and state."

Weigel said Benedict and his aides see a confluence of interests with the Bush administration on many issues, such as AIDS in Africa and the role "life" issues should play in international organizations. "We're so obsessed on Iraq here, we see it as a huge stumbling block," he said. "They see the whole picture, and the whole picture is one of striking parallelism of concerns and initiatives."

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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