2016-06-30
A new American president normally looks forward to meeting the pope for the first time. The traditional private session with the pontiff is supposed to help the president with Catholics back home and show him to be diplomatic and moral. But President Bush's first encounter Monday with Pope John Paul II turned out to be far more than a photo op.

After weeks of agonizing over the ethics--and politics--of embryonic stem cell research, the administration knew that the timing of Bush's meeting with the Though Bush had the best showing among traditional Catholics for a Republican since Ronald Reagan, Bush strategists believe they need to do better in 2004.

Green says that traditionalist Catholics--those who attend Mass once a week or more--have slowly turned more Republican since the 1980s. Last November, 57% of them voted for Bush--but in 2004, that percentage isn't likely to be enough. "What he'd really like to do is get that 57% up to 65%," Green says. Because the 2000 election was essentially a tie, a more robust Catholic vote would have given Bush an outright victory by winning him old-line Catholic states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, which he narrowly lost.

And these are the Catholics most likely to be upset if Bush flip-flops on stem cell research -- and especially if he rebuffs a direct appeal from the pope.

Administration officials have been trying for the last couple of months to appeal to the emotions of these Catholic voters. First, Bush gave a commencement speech at Notre Dame University. Then in June, Bush posthumously awarded a medal to New York's staunchly conservative Cardinal John O'Connor in a ceremony at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Now, administration strategists worry that work will be undone no matter which way they go. If they allow federal funding for stem cell experiments and dis
pope could profoundly influence the deliberations. Not in recent memory has a pope personally offered an appeal on an issue the President was about to decide. During the meeting, John Paul II read a strong statement urging Bush to deny funds for the controversial research, saying that America has a moral responsibility to reject actions that "devalue and violate human life."

Some analysts believe the statement makes it significantly harder for Bush to support stem cell research. "My sense is that the conservatives have gained a little ground," said University of Akron professor John Green after the meeting at the Vatican. "They've put a lot of pressure on the president."

If Bush now moves forward with stem cell research he is no longer going against a dryly written statement of the American bishops, but rather a personal plea from the Pope himself.

Bush has to be seen as taking the pope's views seriously, and after the meeting he made it clear that he did. "I frankly do not care what the political polls say," Bush said. "I do care about the opinions of people, particularly someone as profound as the Holy Father."

Why does Bush care about the Catholic vote so much? At first glance, it doesn't seem that Catholics even agree with the pope on this issue. National polls show that most Catholics, and most Americans, support the research. An ABCNews/Beliefnet poll last month showed that Catholics support it 54% to 35%. Only 18% said religion was a major factor in forming their views. Allowing federal dollars to help come up with cures for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's looked like a smart, compassionate, and popular decision.

But to understand Republican anxiety one has to look not at Catholics in general but specifically "traditionalist" Catholics.

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  • the pope's plea, they will infuriate traditionalist Catholics. And if Bush decides against the funding now, he'll seem insensitive to those who could be helped by stem cell research, and too easily influenced by the pope.

    The visit has already further raised the profile of an issue most Americans were barely aware of six months ago. In Texas, Bush's home state, Catholics have just begun talking about the stem cell debate, according to Bronson Havard, an ordained deacon at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church in Rockwall, Texas.

    "Bush is not a clear picture in the minds of most Catholics in Texas," according to Havard. He recently saw a newspaper cartoon depicting Catholic bishops living in a cave--as in the Dark Ages. "That really shocked me, because this is getting inflamed and politicized," he said.

    In Nebraska, the stem cell debate is already front and center as a result of work by the Nebraska Catholic Conference. Since 1999, Catholic officials have been fighting the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which is using fetal tissue to research Alzheimer's disease and AIDS-related dementia. Partly as a result of that debate, the university formed a bioethics committee that will address how to approach research using embryonic stem cell research.

    "This issue is going to be very disturbing to Catholics"--especially the rock-solid Republican Catholics who live in Nebraska, says Greg Schleppenbach,

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  • director of pro-life activities for the Nebraska bishops.

    But Joseph Varacalli, a Catholic sociologist at Nassau Community College in New York, is "pessimistic" that Bush will ultimately prohibit the stem cell funding.

    "Catholic church organizations mask a lot of indifference and dissent from official church teaching," he says.

    Bush certainly seemed to be taking the pontiff's views into consideration on Monday, even as he rebuffed suggestions that his decision would be influenced by politics. That may or may not be the case for Bush--but it's clear his advisers care a lot about the political effects of the pope's beliefs on stem cell research.

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