Pope Benedict XVI, the spiritual leader of a billion-member global church, arrived this week for his first papal visit. And Republicans celebrated in a Washington hotel with an annual event called "the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast," which has in previous years brought together President George Bush, Republican members of Congress, the several Catholic members of the Supreme Court, and a few conservative bishops for an elegant photo opportunity. This year, however, the event has the added significance of having been organized by the same people who are leading a political advocacy effort called "Catholics for McCain."
The event piggybacked on the Papal visit by treating the 2000 attendees to a live broadcast of the Pope's address to the United Nations.
For five years this event has been billed as a spiritual gathering, but is really more of a partisan mixer organized by Republican political insiders who were pivotal in two Bush election campaigns. The board of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Inc., a non-profit charitable organization, is a club of Republican strategists. Joseph Cella, the board president, is a former religious outreach director for Fred Thompson's presidential campaign, and now serves on Sen. McCain's Catholic steering committee. The vice president, Austin Ruse, has anointed President Bush "the second Catholic president" and is also on Sen. McCain's Catholic steering committee. Board member Leonard Leo is the national co-chair of Catholic outreach for the Republican National Committee. Not surprisingly, Catholic Democrats are leery of attending an event that has become a valuable photo-op for a smiling President Bush standing shoulder-to-shoulder with members of the Catholic hierarchy.
A gathering that should reflect the political and ideological diversity of Catholicism in public life instead perpetuates the myth that Catholic priorities are the same as Republican priorities. Sadly, this distorted message is often reinforced by a handful of outspoken bishops who have publicly gone after some Catholic politicians as unfit to receive communion, even as they tacitly endorse Republican leaders whose positions on the Iraq war, the death penalty, immigration and the economy contradict Church teachings about building a consistent culture of life that does not stop at protecting the unborn. Even among Republicans there is little cause for celebration on the abortion issue; the recent rise in teen pregnancies and the slowing of progress achieved during the previous Democratic Administration suggests that conservatives don't have a monopoly on virtue when it comes to abortion.
The political and moral challenges America faces in these times will require the prophetic wisdom of the nation's diverse faith traditions. Pope Benedict XVI has spoken eloquently about faith and reason working together in pursuit of a just society. His words before the United Nations about creating a global common good that upholds the inherent dignity of every human person resonate across religious, ethnic and political divides. It's a universal message that stands in stark contrast to the selling out of faith to political agendas.