News & Views from 465 California Street

The Pope is a Republican?

Clint Reilly

Distinctly separate events occurring at the same moment are often part of a larger whole. A recent week provided a perfect example.

When Pope Benedict XVI arrived for his first U.S. visit, President Bush took the unprecedented step of greeting him at the airport. Vice President Cheney – who rarely emerges from his bunker except for the occasional Republican fundraiser – bade him farewell six days later.

An unpopular president and vice president sought to share the glow of Pope Benedict’s boffo visit.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continued campaigning ahead of Pennsylvania’s Democratic presidential primary, in which Catholics represented a third of the vote.

Obama, the probable nominee, suffered from a “Catholic gap” as Democratic Catholics leaned heavily toward Clinton. This must-have constituency has bedeviled even Catholic Democrats like John Kerry in recent presidential elections.

Going back to Ronald Reagan’s races against Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in 1980 and 1984, Catholic Democrats have defected to vote Republican in all but the Clinton presidential years.

In Bush’s razor-thin 2004 victory, Catholics and religious fundamentalists (many of whom view the Pope as a symbol of Christian leadership in the free world) provided the margin of victory.

In 2008, Catholics will once again prove pivotal to the outcome of the presidential election. Their early skepticism of Obama is a key reason why the Pope’s visit has profound political ramifications.

Bush’s courtship of the late John Paul II during the 2004 election was transparently political. His trip to Rome to meet the Pope was part of Karl Rove’s elaborate plan to rally Catholics, religious conservatives and evangelicals to the Republican Party.

In 2007, he visited Pope Benedict in Rome and endured a lecture on the Iraq War from the new Pontiff.

For a president who approaches the ceremonial responsibilities of his office with the diffidence of a bored monarch, Bush’s stalking of popes – let’s kindly call it “the bear hugging of the papacy” – is remarkable. If he were a private citizen, every Swiss guardsman at the Vatican would be carrying a Bush mug shot.

As Benedict addressed the United Nations, preached at Yankee Stadium and prayed at Ground Zero, the critical issues of this year’s presidential election surfaced daily.

Worldwide food riots, soaring oil prices and a crippling domestic credit crisis reinforced Benedict’s call for economic justice.

At the same time, the Iraq War and a series of conflicts in Afghanistan, Jerusalem, Darfur and Tibet brought even greater urgency to the Pope’s pleas for peace.

In politics, credibility is stored up by victories and hard work – then used to effect important results. But losses lessen credibility and impede progress. The priest sexual abuse scandal has deeply eroded the moral authority of the Catholic Church at a time when the Pope’s leadership and teaching power are more needed than ever.

That is why Pope Benedict squarely faced the scandal during his trip. Instead of sweeping the problem under the rug or claiming that it was solved, he openly embraced the victims and condemned abusive clergy.

Perhaps there will be a time when a Pope will not have to confess the Church’s sins. In the twentieth century, Papal Encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Workers), Quadragesimo Anno (On the Reconstruction of the Social Order), and Populorum Progressio (On the Development of the People) became blueprints for justice, equality and peace.

Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are far closer to the letter and spirit of papal teachings than imposters like Bush and Cheney who rub the papal cloak and kiss the papal ring but ignore the papal mandate to create a just society.

Comments (1)

  • Clint:

    You have left our some very important papal encyclicals of more recent vintage in your analysis. I am thinking specifically of “The Gospel of Life” which is a very clear statement about the central social justice issue of our time in the US – abortion. Democrats choose not to get this and only talk about the economic justice issuess. The Republicans choose to ignore other issues important to Catholics like healthcare, and the poor as you have mentioned. That leaves me and millions of Catholics, politically homeless.

    Posted by: George Wesolek | April 29th, 2008 at 10:38 am

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