What was George W. Bush doing at the Vatican earlier this month, other than running late for his meeting with Pope John Paul II? Asking for help in the presidential race, naturally. On the same day Ron Reagan, in his eulogy to his father, eloquently and subtly jabbed those who would use religion for political advantage, the National Catholic Reporter posted a story on its Web site illuminating what Bush was up to on his Vatican excursion. "Not all the American bishops are with me" on the cultural issues, Bush reportedly told Cardinal Angelo Sodano and other Vatican officials, asking them to pressure the U.S. bishops to be more politically outspoken and active on the culturally divisive issues -- gay marriage and abortion -- Bush is making part of his appeal to conservative Catholics as well as evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.
Bush's appeals to religious voters have become more and more blatant, so this latest revelation should be no surprise. The campaign recently solicited "friendly" congregations in Pennsylvania to serve as political centers for Bush's reelection efforts, risking their tax-exempt status and dragging places of worship into partisan politics. Yet, there is something even more galling about Bush making a pilgrimage to the Vatican and explicitly asking the leaders of the Catholic Church to insist upon their bishops taking an active role in advancing his campaign.
After all, when Bush said "not all the American bishops are with me," what exactly did he mean? He may have been requesting more vocal support for the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But he was also likely referring to the reluctance of most American bishops not to join the few who are targeting Catholic politicians primarily Democrats, and most prominently, John Kerry -- by threatening to withhold the sacraments from those whose beliefs do not conform to the Vatican's teachings (Not conforming strictly to the church's teachings also describes, of course, untold numbers of everyday Catholics, including those who use birth control.) The scrutiny so far has fallen mainly on Catholic policymakers who support abortion rights. None of those most active in the campaign to deny sacraments to Catholic pols have paid any heed to the Vatican's opposition to, say, the death penalty or the war in Iraq.
We'll likely hear more about this as U.S. bishops started meeting today in Colorado to debate its handling of Catholic politicians. The American Life League, a conservative Catholic group that has launched "Crusade for Defense of our Catholic Church," a campaign to pressure bishops to punish "recalcitrant pro-abortion 'Catholic' public figures," will hold a press conference on Tuesday at the site of the bishops' meeting and unveil a new ad that will run nationwide in the USA Today.
Will any of this work to woo Catholic voters to Bush? One wrinkle is that Catholic voters have so far rejected attempts to politicize the sacraments. And 87 percent of Catholics say the bishops won't affect their vote in November. Clearly most want to keep politics out of the pews.