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Issue Date:  April 18, 2008

The danger of breakfast politics

Under normal circumstances, it would be unrealistic to expect truth in labeling standards to apply to a political event. Spin and self-interest are too much part of the mix.

When a church is involved, however, self-policing ought to be tighter. We refer to an event taking place in Washington this month: the fifth annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.

The nonprofit organization that sponsors this questionable affair contends in its mission statement that it is acting “in response to the call of Pope John Paul the Great for a ‘New Evangelization.’ ” The reality, though, is that the group is a thinly veiled political organization of Republican Catholics whose words and deeds suggest that one, they represent the whole of U.S. Catholicism, and two, that the Republican Party is, in effect, the Catholic Party.

Catholics United, a group that describes itself as a nonpartisan online community of Catholics, points out as much: “This event is organized by operatives of the Republican Party and Republican-affiliated organizations.”

In a letter to this year’s keynote speaker, Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese, Catholics United notes that the president of the organization sponsoring the breakfast, Joseph Cella, is a former president of Fidelis, “whose political action committee gave exclusively to Republican candidates in 2006.”

Cella and Austin Ruse, vice president of the prayer breakfast, “now serve on the national steering committee of Catholics for McCain” claims Catholics United, and Leonard Leo, the breakfast group’s treasurer, “heads outreach for the Republican National Committee.”

President Bush has spoken at the breakfast several times and he and Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, are expected to attend this year.

We don’t pretend to know exactly how the late pope intended his new evangelization to be carried out, but it would be a far stretch, we think, to imagine he’d approve of co-opting the church to validate a particular party during a presidential campaign year.

We have no problem with Catholics of various political persuasions organizing breakfasts or whatever meal they prefer in open and transparent attempts to influence the political process and political parties. In fact, such activity might be encouraged.

But call it the Republican Catholics Prayer Breakfast or the Democratic Catholics Lobbying Lunch. That would be more truthful and to the point, and it would disabuse anyone of the notion that Catholics are of a single mind on politics or the priorities that motivate their voting choices.

In fact, such a truthfully labeled format would give bishops opportunities to attend and voice their moral concerns to each of the political parties.

One bishop might tell Democrats, for example, that, while they are too soft on opposing abortion, they are in line with the pope on other issues, such as opposing the war and striving to do more for people on the bottom rungs of the social ladder.

Another bishop might congratulate Republicans on their opposition to abortion but urge them to stop engaging in preemptive wars and to do a better job in opposing torture and reversal of civil liberties.

And bishops at both gatherings might well urge party leaders on both sides to give top priority to cuts in military spending and military pursuits. There are lots of papal words one could dig up on that one -- powerful and consistent messages on how dangerous that kind of spending is to the entire globe, how contrary that spending is to the Gospel and to “the culture of life” that Catholic leaders like to talk about.

In exchange for that kind of transparency and honesty, we all would understand that there’s no perfect party or politician and, most important, that our Catholic leaders aren’t going to sell our church’s soul to any party -- not for a breakfast, not even for a banquet.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008

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