Washington Notebook

May 19, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 19

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


A new Catholic moment

By Joe Feuerherd

The time has come to talk of presidents and popes.

In her lovely 1972 memoir, Private Faces Public Places, Abigail McCarthy recalled the visit she and her husband, Senator Eugene McCarthy, made to Rome in 1962. Vatican II was in full swing. John Kennedy was president, John XXIII pope.

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It was a glorious time to be active in the big issues of the day, to be liberal, to be Catholic.

"Rome was full of our friends, not only among the bishops, but also theologians and writers," wrote McCarthy. Visits with Time magazine correspondent Bob Kaiser and his wife, who shared an apartment with Archbishop "Ban-the-Bomb" Roberts of Bombay; conversations with Msgr. George Higgins and Redemptorist Fr. F. X. Murphy; lunch with a provocative young German theologian, Fr. Hans Kung; a seat in the Council observers' area with Robert McAfee Brown; convincing the papal gatekeeper that Mary McGrory was Senator McCarthy's sobrina (cousin) so the Washington Star reporter could join their audience with the beloved Holy Father.

Fast forward 43 years.

Tomorrow morning, May 20, a thousand or more Catholics will gather to say an early morning rosary, to participate in a Mass celebrated by San Antonio Bishop Jose Gomez, and to hear remarks by Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and President George W. Bush.

The committee sponsoring the event includes Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the influential Federalist Society and chief of "Catholic outreach" for the Republican National Committee and Austin Ruse of the Culture of Life Foundation. The "host committee" includes Mary Ellen and Robert Bork, Princeton University's Robert George, Harvard's Mary Ann Glendon, former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, John Paull II biographer George Weigel, and Opus Dei's Fr. C. John McCloskey.

It is a glorious time to be active in the big issues of the day, to be conservative, to be Catholic.

Four decades ago, there were divisions among Catholic liberals. Kennedy moved too slowly on civil rights, some said, or was too bellicose in his Cold War rhetoric. The aging and affable John XXIII, meanwhile, had launched an unlikely revolution. Would he, could he, transform the church? There were many who doubted it.

Still, as presidential biographer Richard Reeves would later write, " 'the two Johns,' the pope and Kennedy, had become a banner for those around the world who yearned for change."

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Today, to be sure, there are divisions on the Catholic right. Catholic neoconservatives (i.e. Michael Novak, Weigel, Neuhaus) found themselves favoring their president over their pope in the run-up to the Iraq War. Others thought Pope John Paul The Great (as he is referred to on the prayer breakfast Web site) was too lenient in dealing with disagreement. They look to Benedict XVI to get even tougher on those within the church who plan to keep talking about "settled issues."

But these disputes are family squabbles, not deal-breakers. With Ratzinger in Rome and Bush in the White House, conservative American Catholics are not just in the ascendancy. They are triumphant. It is their moment.

Today, the "Spirit of Vatican II" is a phrase used in disgust by those who claim a greater orthodoxy, just as the once-proud moniker "liberal" is verboten, even by those who embrace its principles. There are no liberal Catholic politicians -- leaders whose faith informed their public life -- with the national reputations of a Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Sargent Shriver, Robert Drinan, Philip Hart, Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Mario Cuomo. The most prominent Catholic politician who most clearly welcomes association with the church is probably Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, whose unabashed opposition to abortion and gay rights makes him a hero to those who will gather at the prayer breakfast (he was the featured speaker last year).

"Republicans now have a real chance of fashioning a long-term governing majority, built in part on the 'new ecumenism' of Catholics and evangelical Protestants," George Weigel wrote just prior to last year's election.

Weigel is correct -- the opportunity for such a political realignment is clearly present.

Meanwhile, the post Vatican II church realignment -- strengthened enormously by the 26-year-reign of John Paul II -- has been confirmed by the election of Benedict XVI.

There's plenty of reason for the prayer breakfast congregants to celebrate.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

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