June 13, 2004
Bush Asked for Vatican's Help on Political Issues, Report Says
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
n his recent trip to Rome, President Bush asked a top Vatican official to push American bishops to speak out more about political issues, including same-sex marriage, according to a report in the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper.
In a column posted Friday evening on the paper's Web site, John L. Allen Jr., its correspondent in Rome and the dean of Vatican journalists, wrote that Mr. Bush had made the request in a June 4 meeting with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state. Citing an unnamed Vatican official, Mr. Allen wrote: "Bush said, 'Not all the American bishops are with me' on the cultural issues. The implication was that he hoped the Vatican would nudge them toward more explicit activism."
Mr. Allen wrote that others in the meeting confirmed that the president had pledged aggressive efforts "on the cultural front, especially the battle against gay marriage, and asked for the Vatican's help in encouraging the U.S. bishops to be more outspoken." Cardinal Sodano did not respond, Mr. Allen reported, citing the same unnamed people.
A spokesman for the Vatican declined yesterday to disclose the contents of the meeting, which followed the president's brief meeting with the pope. Jeanie Mamo, a spokeswoman for the White House, said: "They had a good, private discussion. They discussed a number of priorities of shared concern, and the president's and the Vatican's positions on these issues are well known."
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the report "mind-boggling."
"It is just unprecedented for a president to ask for help from the Vatican to get re-elected, and that is exactly what this is," Mr. Lynn said. Linda Pieczynski, a spokeswoman for Call to Action, a liberal Catholic group, said, "For a president to try to get the leader of any religious organization to manipulate his fellow clergymen to support a political candidate crosses the line in this country."
But some with experience in Roman Catholic politics said they were hardly shocked. "Any head of state who goes to the Vatican will attempt to present a case," said Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, a professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York. Monsignor Albacete, who has served as a translator for Catholic officials in meetings with heads of state, said: "If it is done in a very rude way, then the Vatican will remember and you won't get invited again. But if it is done in a diplomatic way, that is why they go to the Vatican anyway. It is not an act of devotion. It is a political thing."
Mr. Bush's campaign is betting heavily on churchgoers in his re-election effort, and how Catholic voters apply their faith to politics is emerging as a focal point of the race. There are an estimated 63 million Catholics in the United States. Bush campaign pollsters have said that in the last election, people who attended church regularly voted disproportionately for Mr. Bush, though Catholics were much more evenly split than Protestants were.
Once a reliably Democratic constituency, Catholics have become divided, with traditionalist Catholics making common cause with conservative evangelical Protestants on social issues like opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. But Mr. Bush is also a born-again Methodist who is likely to face a Roman Catholic opponent, Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts. And the pope and other Catholic officials have repeatedly criticized the Bush administration over the war in Iraq.
In the last six months, a handful of Catholic bishops in the United States have already weighed in on the presidential race by threatening to withhold communion from Catholic politicians who disagree with the church's stance on abortion, a group that includes Senator Kerry.
Other bishops, however, have said that threatening to withhold communion goes too far, and the pope has warned of "the formation of factions within the church" in the United States. The bishops are expected to take up the matter at a closed-door conference this week in Colorado.
Pope John Paul II praised Mr. Bush last week for "the promotion of moral values" but reminded the president of the pope's "unequivocal position" on Iraq.
Jason Horowitz contributed reporting from Rome for this article