Washington Notebook

May 26, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 20

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


President praises Benedict XVI,
Chaput warns of 'cowardice,' at D.C. prayer breakfast

By Joe Feuerherd

The second annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast celebrated the presidency of George W. Bush, the papacy of Benedict XVI, the legacy of John Paul II, and the take-few-prisoners approach of a Colorado archbishop some in the crowded hotel ballroom hope one day soon will wear a red hat in the nation's capital.

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To the president's right sat Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, a 60-year-old Capuchin whose pronouncements during the presidential campaign about pro-choice Catholic politicians receiving Communion -- he was against them doing so -- made him a hero to the largely conservative audience. To Bush's left was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose work to defuse the Communion controversy ultimately bore little fruit, even as it energized those who would prefer a Washington archbishop on the frontlines and on the conservative side in America's culture wars.

McCarrick turns 75 July 8. That's the age at which bishops are required to submit their resignations to the pope.

Bush deserves praise for his "unflinching devotion to the culture of life" and for removing "the stranglehold of tyrants around the world," prayer breakfast board member and Republican National Committee Catholic liaison head Leonard Leo said in introducing the president. (A smattering of peace activists, gathered outside the hotel, disagreed, saying Bush was not worthy of the honor of speaking at a Catholic event.)

The president, a Methodist, was enthusiastically greeted by the 1,600 attendees. He set the tone at the early morning May 20 event. Freedom, said Bush, "rests on the self-evident truths about human dignity." He continued, "Pope Benedict XVI recently warned that when we forget these truths, we risk sliding into a dictatorship of relativism where we can no longer defend our values. Catholics and non-Catholics alike can take heart in the man who sits on the chair of St. Peter, because he speaks with affection about the American model of liberty rooted in moral conviction."

How those moral convictions get played out in the political realm was Chaput's topic. It's a familiar theme for the archbishop. Last year, Chaput wrote: "Candidates who claim to be 'Catholic' but who publicly ignore Catholic teaching about the sanctity of human life are offering a dishonest public witness. They may try to look Catholic and sound Catholic, but unless they act Catholic in their public service and political choices, they're really a very different kind of creature." And, he concluded, "Real Catholics should vote accordingly."

(CNS/Paul Haring)
Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, left, applauds as President Bush arrives at the second annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington May 20.
At the prayer breakfast, Chaput picked up where he left off. "When public officials claim to be 'Catholic' but then say they can't offer their beliefs about the sanctity of the human person as the basis of law, it always means one of two things," said the archbishop. "They're either very confused or they're very evasive."

Said Chaput: "Christ's relationship with each of us as individuals and all of us as the believing Catholic community should be the driving force of our personal lives and for all of our public witness -- including our political witness."

He continued, "In renewing ourselves in our faith, what Catholics need to change most urgently is the habit and rhetoric of cowardice we find in our own personal lives, in our national political life, and sometimes even within the church herself."

Connect the dots: Catholics who disagree with Chaput's interpretation of the obligations of Catholics in civic life -- Catholics who agree with McCarrick that Communion should not be a political weapon -- are moral cowards. Tough rhetoric, even by Washington standards.

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Come July, McCarrick will presumably give thanks for reaching his 75th year. Others, however, await with glee the prospect of McCarrick's retirement, for in the four-and-a-half years he has served in the nation's capital he has been a persistent thorn in the side of those, who like Chaput, would take a harder line with Catholics in political life who do not accept the church's guidance on legislative issues.

John Paul II allowed many bishops to serve well beyond their 75th birthdays.

How quickly Benedict XVI accepts McCarrick's resignation could be a sign of how the new pope intends to rule; who he appoints to succeed McCarrick could be an even bigger one.

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

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