On May 20, hundreds of Republican loyalists gathered in Washington for the "Second Annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast." The event had the aura of a mainstream affirmation of Catholic faith. Hidden just beneath the surface, however, was the true aim of this assembly: labeling the Republican political agenda as consonant with our Catholic beliefs. Although there were vague references to defending children before birth, none of the initiatives by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops received any significant attention. Sr. Margaret Mary Jerousek from the Little Sisters for the Poor spoke briefly about their important work with the elderly. More important than what was said, however, was the fact that there was no discussion of the wrongness of unilateral invasion, no discussion of cutting US international food aid administered by Catholic Relief Services, no discussion of state-sponsored killing across America, and no discussion of Mr. Bush's sabotaging the British initiative to eliminate poverty in Africa.
It is not difficult to understand the lure of power, which is as great for Catholics as for any other religious group. This was a blatantly partisan event, as demonstrated by the skewed membership of its board of directors: Leonard Leo, former executive vice president of the Federalist Society and head of "Catholic Outreach" for the Republican National Committee; Jacqueline Halbig, who has served as government relations representative for the Christian Coalition; Joseph Cella, founder of a pro-Republican political action committee called the "Ave Maria List"; Austin Ruse, a leading advocate for making the pro-death penalty Antonin Scalia Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; and Bill Saunders, an attorney affiliated with the pro-Republican Family Research Council. Despite its highly partisan nature, the organizers succeeded in luring several bishops and a cardinal to participate.
There were many honorable people in the audience, and Mr. Bush was the featured speaker. He was saluted in an opening prayer by Washington Auxiliary Bishop Martin Holley, who said, "In a very special way, we pray for our most honored guest, our President, George W. Bush, and for his many important works and great leadership that he provides for our country."
Mr. Bush made self-deprecating remarks that brought lots of laughter and applause. He saluted Cardinal McCarrick and Pope Benedict. In a remarkably subtle way, he defended his war in Iraq by saluting a Catholic chaplain who had been injured there. Ironically, in the next breath he conflated the nobility of the war in Iraq with his signature vague references to life, presumably alluding to abortion, and suggesting that Pope John Paul was on board with both. He said, "Catholics have made sacrifices throughout American history because they understand that freedom is a divine gift that carries with it serious responsibilities. Among the greatest of these responsibilities is protecting the most vulnerable members of our society. That was the message that Pope John Paul II proclaimed so tirelessly throughout his own life." It was almost enough to make one forget that our dear late pope condemned the barbarity of both the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent systematic implementation by the Bush Administration of torture there.
Neither Mr. Bush, nor anyone else at the gathering, spoke about the horror of American bombs exploding in the residential neighborhoods of Baghdad, of children watching their parents gunned down at roadside checkpoints, or of the Administration's failure to fess up to responsibility for the worldwide torture of detainees on its watch. Setting aside Administration efforts to undermine Medicare, sabotage Social Security, and expand use of the death penalty, Archbishop Charles Chaput offered a view of Mr. Bush that seemed representative of the audience's feelings: "Americans re-elected President Bush because most voters saw him, and see him, as a man of dedication and a leader deserving of our respect."
Archbishop Chaput closed his remarks with a forceful invocation, "Only God is God, and only Jesus is Lord. When our actions finally follow our words, then so will our nation, and so will the world." But listening to Mr. Bush's remarks, one couldn't help but wonder what it will take to reveal the very dishonesty of which the Very Reverend Archbishop was speaking: offering words about "protecting the most vulnerable members of our society," and then cutting their medical care. Proposing an initiative labeled "Clear Skies," and then undermining environmental regulations and EPA funding in a way that has been projected to cause 20,000 excess deaths across the US each year. Speaking with respect about the sacrifices of military personnel like Fr. Vakoc, but leaving our troops in harm's way on an infinite time horizon. Condemning torture by "a few bad apples," but then appointing the architects of the torture policies to positions like Secretary of Homeland Security, Attorney General, and Representative to the United Nations.
Perhaps we should start by recognizing the myriad ways that Republican operatives are using our Church and our episcopal hierarchy to hide a legislative agenda that might best be characterized as "the preferential option for the rich," at the expense of our country's fiscal health, America's reputation in the world, and—oh yes—the poor.