Shortly after Pope Benedict XVI’s election in 2005, President Bush met with a small circle of advisers in the Oval Office. As some mentioned their own religious backgrounds, the president remarked that he had read one of the new pontiff’s books about faith and culture in Western Europe.
Save for one other soul, Bush was the only non-Catholic in the room. But his interest in the pope’s writings was no surprise to those around him. As the White House prepares to welcome Benedict on Tuesday, many in Bush’s inner circle expect the pontiff to find a kindred spirit in the president. Because if Bill Clinton can be called America’s first black president, some say, then George W. Bush could well be the nation’s first Catholic president.
“There is an awareness in the White House that the rich Catholic intellectual tradition is a resource for making the links between Christian faith, religiously grounded moral judgments and public policy,” says Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and editor of the journal First Things who has tutored Bush in the church’s social doctrines for nearly a decade.
In the late 1950s, Kennedy’s Catholicism was a political albatross, and he labored to distance himself from his church. Accepting the Democratic nomination in 1960, he declared his religion “not relevant.”
Bush and his administration, by contrast, have had no such qualms about their Catholic connections. At times, they’ve even seemed to brandish them for political purposes. Even before he got to the White House, Bush and his political guru Karl Rove invited Catholic intellectuals to Texas to instruct the candidate on the church’s social teachings. In January 2001, Bush’s first public outing as president in the nation’s capital was a dinner with Washington’s then-archbishop, Theodore McCarrick. A few months later, Rove (an Episcopalian) asked former White House Catholic adviser Deal Hudson to find a priest to bless his West Wing office.
“There was a very self-conscious awareness that religious conservatives had brought Bush into the White House and that [the administration] wanted to do what they had been mandated to do,” says Hudson.
To conservative Catholics, that meant holding the line on same-sex marriage, euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research, and working to limit abortion in the United States and abroad while nominating judges who would eventually outlaw it. To make the case, Bush has often borrowed Pope John Paul II’s mantra of promoting a “culture of life.” Many Catholics close to him believe that the approximately 300 judges he has seated on the federal bench — most notably Catholics John Roberts and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court — may yet be his greatest legacy.
This explains why George Bush’s speeches sound so Catholic when he talks about the natural law and the culture of life. In this crazy world we live in, we’ve got Protestant politicians who believe in the Catholic faith more than baptized Catholic politicians do.