Bush soon a Catholic? Fantasy, speculation, wishful praying?

U.S. President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair often saw eye to eye politically. Are they about to see eye to eye religiously?

Pope Benedict XVI chats with U.S. President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush in the Oval Office at the White House in WashingtonBlair, a life-long Anglican, converted to Catholicism in December after he left office in June. The Italian weekly magazine Panorama is reporting in its latest edition that Bush, a Methodist, may follow his political soul-mate and also convert to Catholicism after he leaves office next year.

To be honest, the odds of this happening appear as good as those of the proverbial snowball in hell. In fact, the Panorama article starts with two sentences saying this “might” happen and the rest of the article is background.

Panorama tries to build up its case by reminding the reader that Bush prayed together with Pope Benedict when the pontiff visited the White House on April 16, that Bush’s brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida, converted to Catholicism, the religion of his wife, and that a number of Bush’s advisers are Catholic.

Father ZThe only other Italian publication playing with this idea was Corriere della Sera, which ran a story on April 17 entitled “Bush, a crypto-Catholic president.” Its correspondent Massimo Gaggi pins his speculation on the Washington Post, which ran a story on April 13 by Daniel Burke of Religion News Service. Citing the high number of Catholics in his administration, Burke wrote that “George W. Bush could well be the nation’s first Catholic president.” At the very end of his piece, he has two quotes to the effect that Bush is a “closet Catholic” and the parallel to Blair, but no outright speculation about conversion. Maybe that’s how all this started and found its way into Panorama.

Can China and the Vatican make beautiful music together?

World Team Table Tennis Championships in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, 2 March 2008/Bobby YipRemember ping-pong diplomacy, the exchange of ping-pong players between the United States and communist China in the 1970s that was one of the first steps that led to a thaw in relations between the two countries? If the Vatican had a ping-pong team, perhaps China would have considered sending their squad to the walled city in Rome for a match.

But the Vatican does not have a ping-pong team, as far as we know. So, the next best thing appears to be music. This week, Vatican Radio made a surprise announcement on its daily 2 p.m. bulletin. The China Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing and the Shanghai Opera House Chorus will perform Mozart’s Requiem for Pope Benedict on May 7 in the Vatican’s audience hall, adding a stop to its already scheduled European tour.

Pope Benedict at a recent concert in his honor in the Vatian audience hallAs one diplomat said, “this could not have happened without the Beijing government approving it.” Given the fact that relations between the Vatican and Beijing have been scratchy to say the least, one can only wonder if this is the start of a mating game. It could lead to diplomatic relations and China’s recognition of the pope as leader of all Catholics in the world, including Chinese Catholics, many of whom have been forced to join the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Communion politics issue boils up after U.S. papal visit

Papal Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, 19 April 2008/Shannon StapletonA papal visit, with its weeks of build-up and intense media coverage, often seems to end with an afterglow — but very little news — once the pope and his party fly back to the Eternal City. Not so with Pope Benedict’s recent U.S. visit where, more than a week after it ended, the volatile issue of public figures, the abortion & Communion issue is making headlines.

While journalists reported that prominent Catholic politicians who support abortion rights stepped up to receive the Eucharist during Masses in Washington and New York (here’s our story and blog post), the development was little more than a footnote in the wave of coverage that washed over the visit. It was notable, however, in view of a controversy that began in 2004 when some U.S. bishops said they would deny Communion to John Kerry, then the Democratic presidential nominee, because he supported abortion rights

But during the U.S. papal Masses, not only did Kerry receive Communion but so did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani and Senators Edward Kennedy and Christopher Dodd. The conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote in the Washington Post on Monday that this “reflected disobedience to Benedict by the archbishops of New York and Washington” and did not indicate any softening of the pope’s anti-abortion position.

Pope trip: when the news isn’t really new

Pope Benedict at Yankee Stadium, 20 April 2008/poolIt seems that we’ve been writing for the past three years that Pope Benedict is different from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The fact there is a kinder, gentler person there than the worn-out “God’s Rottweiler” tag suggests doesn’t seem to be news anymore. But it apparently still is. When I sat down to write a summary of the pope’s trip to the United States, what struck me most was how many people were surprised by how favourably impressed they were. There were comments that he’d “changed his image” or “softened the edges” on this trip. In fact, he changed his image three years ago. What happened on the trip was that these people changed their view of him.

Here’s my analysis of the trip — he came, they saw, he conquered.

One comment I thought was particularly good was from Alicia Colon in the New York Sun: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a Roncalli, a Wojtyla, or a Ratzinger who wears the white robes and mitre; it’s the words that will always resonate in our hearts. It’s not the singer, it’s the song.”

How do you think his trip went? Was it the trip you expected? Was he the man you expected?

Pope sets higher goals for Catholic education

Pope Benedict waves after his speech to Catholic educators, 17 April 2008/Jonathan ErnstThere was some speculation before his visit that Pope Benedict was going to read the riot act to Catholic educators for not keeping their universities and schools sufficiently Catholic. That was never really on the cards, because Benedict doesn’t like to come and berate people like that.

Also, the situation is complex, reflecting changes in the overall Catholic population and in Catholic academe. Reading the riot act would not have been very effective, anyway, because Benedict doesn’t really have the power to enforce changes in individual U.S. Catholic universities.

Instead, he opted for an approach that was actually more challenging to the Catholic educators than sitting through an outright rebuke would have been. He outlined a whole philosophy of what Catholic education should be and challenged them to live up to its ambitious goals. It was a counter-cultural message, one that sounds quite strange in such an individualistic society like America. He defended academic freedom, but freedom as the Church defines it — the freedom to follow the truth of Catholic doctrine. Freedom in this view is not simply “freedom from…” It’s “freedom to…” It’s not some free-standing concept (as modern society might see it) but a concept with a purpose.

Benedict’s deeper thoughts about faith in the U.S.

Pope Benedict addresses U.S. bishops, 16 April 2008/Kevin LamarquePope Benedict made so many positive comments about the positive role of faith in U.S. public life before and at the beginning of his U.S. visit that it was inevitable he would get around to a deeper analysis at some point. That point came in his meeting with American bishops in Washington on Wednesday. It was the kind of analysis we’ve come to expect from him — clearly expressed, intellectually ambitious and focused on his trademark issue of relativism.

“It is not enough to count on this traditional religiosity and go about business as usual, even as its foundations are being slowly undermined,” he warned the bishops gathered at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The “American brand of secularism,” he said, “can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator.”

Here’s our news story on the speech and the full text, which is always useful to read if Benedict’s the author. He sets out his ideas over sentences and paragraphs that need to be read to the end to get the full flavour of what he’s saying.

Singing and dancing welcome pope on DC streets

Crowds welcome Pope Benedict in Washington, 16 April 2008/Jonathan ErnstThe Washington Post carries an interesting story today examining how American Catholics are split when it comes to music — many older parishioners are partial to folk-style songs written in the 1970s, while many younger members want Gregorian chant and other older forms of music.

But a third style of music ruled the streets of Washington today, as thousands gathered to view the Pope’s motorcade. Several predominantly Latino church groups brought drums, tambourines and guitars to accompany energetic songs that would not have sounded out of place in a South American soccer stadium. Click here to listen.

Bush poaches some of Benedict’s best lines

Pope Benedict and President Bush at the Rose Garden, 16 April 2008/Max Rossi There was a curious reversal of roles when Pope Benedict and President Bush spoke in the Rose Garden today during the pontiff’s visit to the White House. As we put it in a sidebar to the main story :

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, President George W. Bush praised Pope Benedict to the heavens on Wednesday by poaching some of the pontiff’s best-known lines when he welcomed him to the White House.

He also gave the scholarly pope a lesson or two about public speaking, winning loud cheers from the 9,000-strong audience in the Rose Garden, while Benedict elicited only sparse, polite applause for a speech without noticeably sharp edges.

Mormons say polygamist sects a headache

Salt Lake Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, 28 May 2007/Lucy NicholsonNow here’s something new for us — a story that began with a post on FaithWorld last week, prompted a slew of comments and now features in an interview for the wire. Ed Stoddard’s post “Mormons have ‘fundamental’ PR problem” highlighted the confusion caused by the case of a breakaway sect whose Texas compound was raided this month. The post has over 130 comments so far. As the debate raged, Ed interviewed Quentin Cook, a spiritual elder with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to get the official view:

DALLAS (Reuters) – The mainstream Mormon church renounced polygamy over a century ago, but it says the breakaway sects that practice plural marriage are giving it a public relations headache.

Attention has once again been drawn to the issue by the raids this month on a Texas compound run by followers of jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs. More than 400 children were removed in the raids sparked by an abuse complaint and their fate remains in legal limbo.

The “pope of the Internet age” on the papal flight

Pope Benedict during his Q&A on his flight to Washington, 15 April 2008/Max RossiJust heard an interesting idea from Delia Gallagher, a Vatican analyst for CNN, who said that Pope John Paul was the pope of the television age but Pope Benedict is the pope of the Internet age. John Paul was good for the dramatic gesture and sound bite, which was just right for television, while Benedict speaks in lectures you should really read from start to finish. Thanks to the Internet, you can do this and more — something that was just not possible when John Paul was globe-trotting around.


As an example, just take Benedict’s comments on the flight over the Atlantic. We covered them in a text report. But we also also have some video of him on the plane, declaring (with his strong German accent) that he was “deeply ashamed” because of the scandal of U.S. priests sexually abusing minors. We’ve read about these in-flight Q&As with the Vatican press corps in the past, but how many have you ever seen? Here’s our clip:

It also used to be that only journalists on the flight had access to all of the pope’s comments. Now, The National Catholic Reporter has produced a rush transcript of his full in-flight Q&A. Here’s the link.