WASHINGTON -- On his most recent overseas trip, President Bush reportedly asked Vatican officials earlier this month to promote socially conservative values in the United States more aggressively -- a further sign that the Catholic Church and its members could play a key role in this year's presidential campaign.
Bush, whose reelection strategy hinges in part on winning support from highly religious voters, told a Vatican official that "not all the American bishops are with me" on social issues, according to an article in the independent journal National Catholic Reporter. Bush focused especially on gay marriage, the article said.
White House officials have not confirmed the account. But advisers to Senator John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee and a Catholic, said Bush's effort to recruit Vatican support is in keeping with his pattern of mixing religion and politics -- coming on the heels of a memo from Bush campaign officials, made public in early June, seeking to organize supporters through their church congregations.
"Bush's overt attempts to use houses of God as political organizations, and now lobbying the Vatican to play election politics, crosses the line," Kerry campaign spokesman Michael Meehan said yesterday. "While people of faith are important to the foundation of America's value system, politicians should not exploit religious organizations for personal political gain; dimming reelection prospects are included."
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt replied: "During this campaign, John Kerry has repeatedly gone to churches and quoted Scripture from the pulpit, and used Bible verse to attack President Bush in the most inappropriate ways. This is just the latest example of a baseless attack from John Kerry."
Religion has played an increasingly critical role in politics, especially at the presidential level, in recent years, as Bush has encouraged "faith-based initiatives" that allow government funding of some religious programs, and as he has openly shared his personal religious beliefs. His campaign advisers, acting on studies and polls that show a direct link between churchgoing and political affiliation, have targeted people who attend services regularly as one way to ensure that Republicans turn out on Election Day.
Both candidates are at odds with the Catholic hierarchy over certain principles: Kerry has come under fire from some Catholic officials for his support of abortion rights, which violates church doctrine. And Bush has faced criticism directly from Pope John Paul II, who is vehemently opposed to the invasion of Iraq.
Like Bush, Kerry is opposed to gay marriage. But Bush has taken a more aggressive stand, backing a constitutional amendment that would forbid states from allowing homosexuals to marry. The issue is especially salient in this election cycle because Massachusetts has become the first state to allow gay marriages, underscoring the left-of-center forces in Kerry's home state. Massachusetts will also host the Democratic National Convention next month.
Although Kerry opposes gay marriage, he supports civil unions between homosexuals, which grant legal benefits without conferring the official stamp of marriage.
After Bush met with various Vatican officials and the pope on his June 4 visit, White House officials said that a range of issues had been discussed, without mentioning any specific appeal by the president. But the National Catholic Reporter article, written by a veteran Vatican correspondent, said Bush had met with Cardinal Angelo Sodano and other Vatican officials and in their discussions implied that "he hoped the Vatican would nudge [US bishops] toward more explicit activism" on cultural matters.
The article, quoting anonymous sources, continued: "Other sources in the meeting said that while they could not recall the president's exact words, he did pledge aggressive efforts on the cultural front, especially the battle against gay marriage, and asked for the Vatican's help in encouraging the US bishops to be more outspoken." The author, John Allen Jr., wrote that Sodano did not respond to the request.
Bush is a Methodist, and although he does not use the term "born-again," he has talked at length about his adult religious reawakening more than a decade ago.
Kerry's relationship with the Catholic Church has occasionally presented difficulties for his campaign. A senior Vatican official issued a statement in April declaring that abortion rights supporters should be denied Communion. A number of churches, including Kerry's in Boston and the one he attended in Pittsburgh yesterday, do not deny him or other abortions rights supporters the Eucharist.
Kerry not only received Communion at St. Benedict the Moor Church, a largely black parish in Pittsburgh's Hill District, but he and his wife listened to a homily focused on the Eucharist. In brief remarks to the parish during a pause to greet visitors, the Massachusetts senator said, "I have the privilege of not just worshiping here this morning, but also visiting Teresa's home."
His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, has a farm in nearby Fox Chapel, where the couple spent the week.
After Mass, two abortion opponents berated Kerry, his wife, and a priest as they left the church.
"Senator Kerry, you can't support abortion. It's a scandal," yelled one, who identified herself as Janet Cocchi of Mount Lebanon, Pa. "You're not in communion with the Catholic Church." The other protester, who identified herself as Mary Kay Brown of Dorseyville, Pa., said she and Cocchi represented the local chapter of Operation Witness, an antiabortion group founded by Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry.
Neither Kerry nor his wife responded to the taunts, which included Cocchi yelling into the open door of their limousine, "Teresa, how could you kill a baby?"