National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 2, 2003

Secretary balances Catholicism, policy

Bush’s man acknowledges ‘deviations“ from church teaching


One of the most senior Roman Catholics in the Bush administration says that despite a recent Vatican document insisting that Catholic politicians must align their policy choices with church doctrine, he can’t do his job “by solely relying on Catholic teachings.”

Tommy Thompson: "Both the president and the pope want peace in the Middle East, but they differ on means."
-- CNS/Bob Roller

“I have got to wherever possible adhere to [church teaching],” said Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, during a Rome news conference April 18. “But in some places there will be deviations.”

Thompson, 61, is a Republican, former governor of Wisconsin, and was briefly a candidate for president in 1996. He has held his present post since February 2001.

Thompson, who is antiabortion, is nevertheless the foremost advocate in the Bush administration of research involving embryonic stem cells, a practice the Vatican has strenuously opposed. Thompson insisted, however, that his position is consistent with Catholic morality, and said he would “like to talk to the pope about it.”

Thompson also acknowledged a break with John Paul II and Vatican officials on the morality of the war in Iraq.

Thompson was in Rome to sign a health agreement with Italy, and to meet with Vatican officials about possible collaboration with U.S. postwar reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was interviewed by three Catholic news agencies, including NCR, April 18.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released Jan. 16 a “doctrinal note” titled “On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life.” The document insisted that Catholic politicians face an obligation to be “morally coherent” with church teaching. Quoting John Paul II, the document asserted that Catholic politicians have a “grave and clear obligation to oppose” any law that attacks human life. Specifically, the document cited “the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo” among areas that do not admit compromise.

Thompson, who said he was aware of the document but had not read it, defended the compromise policy he helped engineer, under which stem cells may be extracted for research purposes from embryos removed before Aug. 9, 2001.

“Our position does not encourage other destructions, and it does not encourage people to have babies solely for building a supply of stem cells,” Thompson said. “I feel morally correct, and I think it’s in line with church teaching that instead of throwing valuable resources away, we make use of them. … I would love to talk to the pope about it.”

His stand has brought sharp criticism from pro-life advocates.

“We would have preferred he would have been given Transportation, and he could have gone off and played with the trains,” Richard Lessner, of the conservative Family Research Council told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in July 2001.

The stem cell issue is not the first time Thompson has been at odds with leaders in his church. While he was governor of Wisconsin, he jousted with then-Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee over public assistance for the poor. Thompson was among the pioneers of welfare reform policies.

In 1996 Weakland wrote to The Washington Post criticizing Wisconsin’s welfare reform program. Thompson testily replied, “Here’s a guy who writes a letter and doesn’t even bother to contact this state administration.” Picking up on the fact that Weakland was on the East Coast at the time studying music, Thompson suggested that Weakland should “come back to Wisconsin and read his Bible instead of playing piano in New York.”

“I’m still standing,” Thompson said on April 18 of those clashes.

On the other hand, Thompson said he enjoys a warm relationship with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., for whom he said he has “tremendous respect, faith and confidence.” He said McCarrick has been a “good adviser,” and that the two men have occasionally “gone out for a beer” together.

Thompson acknowledged disappointment over differences with John Paul II on Iraq, but expressed no doubts about the wisdom of the Bush policy.

“If I had my druthers, I would rather have had the pope on my side,” Thompson said. “But we have much better information than the pope about what’s going on inside Iraq and what would happen in the rest of the Middle East.

“Both the president and the pope want peace in the Middle East, but they differ on means. If the war can help us arrive at a lasting peace, the pope will say this is good,” Thompson said.

“The pope is concerned about innocent children and citizens, and so are we,” Thompson said. “We can show with empirical evidence and data that we have saved men, women and children from torture, from rapes and murders, in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said.

Despite the clash over the war, Thompson insisted that the Bush administration’s record on issues of concern to the Catholic church remains strong.

“There’s never been an administration stronger against cloning. There’s never been an administration stronger on the right to life. These are two cornerstones of our faith,” Thompson said.

In general, Thompson said, he cannot base political choices exclusively on positions taken by the Catholic church.

“I don’t think that is necessary for me to do my job,” he said. “I have to minister to the needs of all Americans, not just Catholics. I have to minister to the needs of citizens, the majority of whom are not believers in the Catholic church. I can’t do my job, carrying out the policies of this administration and previous administrations, by solely relying on Catholic teachings.”

Asked about reports that Bush is strongly influenced by his religious convictions, Thompson agreed.

“The president is very religious,” Thompson said. “He reads the Bible every morning and goes to church every Sunday. But he also believes in what is morally right, and tries to carry out decision-making based on his own moral compass.”

While in Rome, Thompson attended most of the Holy Week liturgies led by Pope John Paul II, including the Holy Thursday Mass and the Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday at the Colosseum.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 2003

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