Playing the Catholic Card
Adele M. Stan, June 8, 2000

Ever since he was called on the carpet for speaking in a noted anti-Catholic venue, Bob Jones University, during the Republican primary, GOP presidential hopeful Gov. George W. Bush has been scrambling to try to rebuild his image among America's Roman Catholics. He is having little success. With each new attempt at courting the Catholic community, Bush only digs himself in more deeply as he reveals his ignorance of who America's Catholics really are, and what they want.

In a little-noticed incident that took place over the Memorial Day weekend, Bush blundered once again. During a satellite interview with members of the Catholic Press Association, he attempted to pick a fight with the Clinton administration over the Vatican's status as a permanent observer at the United Nations. At issue was a press conference held on U.N. grounds by the feminist advocacy group Catholics For a Free Choice (CFFC) at which the group's leaders made their case for downgrading the Vatican's role in the international body. (In the interest of full disclosure, I did a research project for CFFC in 1998 on the state of feminism in Muslim and Hindu faith communities.)

W, the Great Papist
Advocacy groups accredited by the U.N. are known as non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. A member country must sponsor a NGO that wants to hold a press conference on U.N. grounds. The United States sponsored CFFC, as well as a news conference the next day by the conservative Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which used the platform to advocate the opposite position. "Our policy is to sponsor legitimate NGOs if they want to use the facilities -- nothing more, nothing less," said Mary Ellen Glynn, spokeswoman for Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in an interview with The New York Times. "It's a non-partisan policy."

Peppering his comments with quotes from the late archbishop of New York John Cardinal O'Connor and Pope John Paul II, Bush seized upon the incident to cast doubt on the current administration's commitment to preserving the U.N. status of the Holy See. He told the Catholic Press Association that the Clinton administration's position was "unclear." In fact, to the dismay of feminists the Clinton administration continues to support the Vatican's status as a permanent observer at the U.N.

On the same day, according to Allison Mitchell of the Times, a Bush campaign aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told a group of reporters that a Bush administration would have denied CFFC a U.N. platform for its press conference. In his attempt to pander to the Catholic community of his mind, Bush painted himself as a greater papist than are most American Catholics, and one who would allow his administration's advocacy of one particular religious body to trump the American talisman of free speech.

Playing on ignorance
As a permanent observer at the U.N., the Vatican is denied a vote in the General Assembly. But it comes to the table as a full member to international conferences -- such as the 1994 conference on population in Cairo, or the 1995 4th World Conference on Women hosted by Beijing -- when they are convened. Such conferences yield international agreements, and thus are significant. When it comes to the rights of women, the Holy See has not been on the side of the angels. In Cairo, it brokered an alliance with such misogynistic states as Libya, Iran and Yemen to voice its objections to passages that upheld women's rights to reproductive health services, including contraception. In Africa, a continent ravaged by AIDS, the Vatican has tried to obstruct the distribution of condoms.

Like the population at large, few American Catholics are aware of the role that their church leaders have played in trying to keep the world's less fortunate women barefoot and pregnant. Chances are, if they did, they would be hard pressed to condone it. But, knowing the relative obscurity of the Vatican's global maneuverings in the consciousness of average Americans, Bush cynically sought to play upon public ignorance to create an anti-Catholic menace where none existed. Would that his disrespect for American Catholics began and ended there.

Catholic solidarity, Catholic diversity
America's Roman Catholics are a diverse lot in every category imaginable -- class, race, ethnicity, geography and political ideology. It is a community that has now come of age in the New World. Long gone are the days when Catholics could be counted on to vote as a bloc according to the dictates of the prelates. Yet the Bush campaign seems to be working on the assumption that Catholic votes will be delivered to them by the bishops.

If there is anything that unites Catholics, it is a sense of identity sprung from being members of the world's oldest organized Christian denomination. That is why Catholics -- left-wing Catholics, right-wing Catholics, rich Catholics, poor Catholics -- cringed in unison at Bush's Bob Jones appearance, especially once John McCain, playing his own Catholic card, pointed out to us the denouncement of Catholicism as "a cult" (and worse) by the university's founder.

Another uniting factor among Catholics, though perhaps less universal, is respect and a sense of affection for our leaders, even when we disagree with them vehemently. That's why so many of us found Bush's mea culpa letter to O'Connor, sent to the cardinal as he lay dying of brain cancer, so craven in its execution. In the letter, sent just days before the New York Republican primary, Bush apologized for not having spoken out against Bob Jones's anti-Catholic rhetoric from the university's stage. He no doubt knew that the cardinal was in no condition to hear his confession, and that was apparently not the point. Before the archdiocese even had a chance to respond to Bush's missive, the Bush campaign released it to the press. In so doing, Bush proved his willingness to exploit the office of a dying man as well as his cultural insensitivity to the community. For Catholics, it is not the confession that counts; it is the absolution. You can say you're sorry all you want, but until you're absolved by the priest, the black mark of sin remains on your soul.

Salt in our wounds
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Bush's attempt to engage Catholics, as demonstrated in the Catholic Press Association episode, is his willingness to play upon our troubles as a church community, and to choose sides in our family crisis. That is exactly what his campaign did when it put out the word that CFFC should be silenced at the U.N, with the implication that a conservative Catholic group would be free to speak in support of the Vatican. As Catholics have come to embrace modern and American values, the church has become painfully divided over such issues as contraception, abortion and homosexuality. It is not just the church's dogma on these issues that rankles many Catholics; it is the hierarchy's political activism on these fronts. These are not mere academic disputes for the faithful. They have divided families and left many Catholics straining for a way to remain in their church. That George W. Bush would deign to rub salt in our wounds shows him to be one conservative who is anything but compassionate.

Adele M. Stan is a regular contributor to She is the Washington correspondent for Working Woman magazine.

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