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 Washington Notebook

November 3, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 40

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"We had a group of bishops who decided to speak out strongly on the life issues like they've never done before. I don't see this stopping and I expect that they will increasingly assert themselves within the body of bishops and within their dioceses."

Austin Ruse,
president of the Culture of Life Foundation and Institute


Values voters in the spotlight; The other presidential race

By Joe Feuerherd

Perhaps first among those groups entitled to take credit for George W. Bush's victory are the "values voters" -- those evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics who came out to the polls in large numbers for the president.

Over the next weeks and months pundits and statisticians will slice and dice the election returns and provide analysis on which voters were key to Bush's success. But a preliminary examination demonstrates that these faith-based voters made all the difference for Bush.

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Twenty-one percent of voters, for example, cited "moral values" as the number "one issue [which] mattered most in deciding" how they voted, according to a Washington Post survey of the national electorate. That's higher than the 20 percent who cited the economy, the 18 percent who mentioned terrorism, or the 15 percent who pointed to the war in Iraq. And, significantly, of those who cited moral values, 78 percent voted for Bush.

Nationally, the Catholic vote was an essential element of that constituency. Bush got 52 percent of the Catholic vote, according to CNN, and 56 percent of those -- the so-called "faithful Catholics" -- who say they go to Mass weekly.

Is it payback time?

"Faithful Catholics really delivered for President Bush and now we'll be asking him to deliver for faithful Catholics," says Austin Ruse, president of the Washington-based Culture of Life Foundation and Institute.

First priority: federal judgeships and, given the illness of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, potential openings on the Supreme Court. While Bush dodged the question of litmus tests for judicial appointments at the second presidential debate, Ruse is under no such constraints. "We are looking for judges," he says, "who will be pro-life judges."

Bush's election was essential to the anti-abortion movement, says Ruse. "We would have been locked in stasis for another 40 years [on Roe v. Wade] because the next president is going to choose two, or three, or four Supreme Court justices." If Kerry had been elected, says Ruse, "we wouldn't have been able to revisit Roe v. Wade for at least another generation."

Some credit for bringing out the values voters, says Ruse, goes to those Catholic bishops who forcefully made social issues -- abortion, embryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriage -- a key part of their pre-election ministry. "We had a group of bishops who decided to speak out strongly on the life issues like they've never done before," says Ruse. "I don't see this stopping and I expect that they will increasingly assert themselves within the body of bishops and within their dioceses."

If Ruse is even close to right, it's going to be an interesting four years for both the church and the state.


Meanwhile, some members of the Catholic community are abuzz about the presidential election.

No, not that presidential election.

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Later this month, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Washington they will elect a new president to succeed Belleville, Ill. Bishop Wilton Gregory, who is nearing the end of his three-year-term. Normally, the vote is pro forma, with the conference's vice president automatically ascending to the presidential post. But these are not normal times.

Currently, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., is the conference's vice president, and as such has been part of the leadership team that has developed the bishops' response to the clergy sex abuse crisis. In an Oct. 29 letter, Skylstad gave Spokane parishioners a heads-up to his plans to seek office. "There is a tradition of the vice president succeeding the president, but my actual selection is by no means certain," said Skylstad.

No one cares to speak on-the-record about such things, but there are two highly speculative schools of thought being bandied about. The first says that Skylstad will get the job and the real contest will be for the vice-presidential post (more on that below). The second is that some of the conference's more conservative members will rally behind one of their own in an effort to tilt the leadership of the conference in a direction more to their liking.

Two recent developments complicate the story. In the same letter in which he described his plans to seek the USCCB presidency, Skylstad said that the Spokane diocese may have to file for bankruptcy protection if it is unable to settle claims related to the clergy abuse. That potential liability results largely from accusations of abuse made against Patrick Gerald O'Donnell, who, as a Spokane priest, reportedly molested more than 30 children. Some of that abuse occurred in the mid-1970s at a parish where Skylstad served as pastor.

So, the question is: Will this combination of factors -- ideological dissatisfaction and association with scandal -- derail the Skylstad bid? The election is Nov. 15.

In addition to Skylstad, the candidates for president are: Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein; Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput; Rapid City Bishop Blase J. Cupich; Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan; Chicago Archbishop Cardinal Francis E. George; Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas; San Francisco Archbishop William J. Levada; Philadelphia Archbishop Cardinal Justin F. Rigali; and Pittsburgh Bishop Donald W. Wuerl.

Both president and vice president are elected by a simple majority. If this majority is not reached on the first or second ballot for president, the two candidates receiving the highest number of votes on the second ballot will be the sole candidates on the third and final ballot. The vice president is then selected from the remaining nine candidates using the same procedure.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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