President Bush was so eager for a meeting with Pope John Paul II that he recently flew overnight to Rome to cram in a visit before the pontiff--who said he couldn't rearrange his schedule--left town the next day. While there, Bush was greeted by angry anti-war protesters and had his knuckles rapped by the pope over the war in Iraq.

Why would Bush subject himself to this? Answer: Bush badly needs Catholic votes.

"Catholics are the key," says Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine and a Bush campaign adviser. "If we lose any of the Catholic vote we'll lose the election." And to an unprecedented degree, the White House and a network of conservative Catholics have been working hard to get several million American Catholics to vote Republican.

There are 64 million Catholics in the United States. During the 2000 election, Bush received 47% of the Catholic vote to Gore's 49%. In 2004, the Republican strategy is to sway Catholic centrists while increasing turnout among "traditionalist" Catholics who attend Mass regularly.

According to a recent poll of 3,500 voters conducted at the University of Akron by John Green, Bush now has the edge, 49% to 40%, among Catholics who are regular--once a week or more--church-goers, while Kerry leads among less regular Mass-attending Catholics, 58% to 35%. Among all voters, Bush is ahead of Kerry, 44% to 43%.

Green then sliced the Catholic vote into groups of "traditionalists," "centrists," and "modernists." These groupings refer to Catholic beliefs, but not necessarily behavior; in other words, some modernists may be regular church-goers while some traditionalists may stay home from Mass. Bush is winning among traditionalists (60% to 30%), and Kerry is winning among the modernists (61% to 33%). But, signicantly, Kerry is also slightly ahead (45% to 41%) among the centrists.

How are Republicans trying to get Catholic votes?

First, they've organized. The White House meets weekly with Catholic conservatives, including Hudson and Frank Pavone, the head of Priests for Life. "The effort during this administration is ongoing," says Hudson. "Catholic leaders have been able to tell this administration what its concerns are, and the administration has been able to tell Catholics what they want to do, what they plan on doing, what their rationale for their policy is." Beyond abortion, says Hudson, they've discussed stem cell research, gay marriage, judicial nominations, and the faith-based initiative (which Hudson described as a "very, very big issue.")

In the spring of 2001, just after the inauguration, the GOP began organizing conservative Catholics to build a nationwide network of grassroots "team leaders" who then introduced Mass-attending Catholics to the Republican Party. The GOP and Bush-Cheney '04 each also have Catholic outreach operations. In the last four years, they've used mailings culled from parish registries, literature tables set up outside church sanctuaries, websites, and email lists to distribute information and encourage interest in the Republican Party's pro-life stance.

But the political alliance goes beyond abortion. In the summer of 2001, Crisis published an article discussing how the Republican Party would try to woo Catholics in the 2004 election, using issues other than abortion. "If the Republican Party is to attract more Catholics, it will have to do two things: convince them that it's serious about the rights of the unborn and show them that the GOP is better for ordinary folks than the Democratic Party," wrote John Rossomondo. "The president believes that the way to attract Catholics into the GOP is by focusing on issues such as education, taxes, Social Security, and Medicare, in addition to abortion. For example, Democrats have long stood for higher taxes to support social programs. Bush believes that the burden of heavy taxation ultimately harms working Americans, preventing families from purchasing many of life's necessities."

Last week, Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, met with about 100 local Catholic activists in Boston to build support for Bush. "The fact is, President Bush's policy positions are more in sync with where most Catholics are," Gillespie told the Boston Herald.

Hudson, a former Baptist minister who converted to Catholicism, says Republicans must use language that resonates with Catholics. "The issue is not just pro-life, it's `culture of life' issues, social renewal issues," he says. "Strengthening of marriage, strengthening of education, the faith-based initiative that helps get social services more connected to government funding, and patriotism--because Catholics are very much behind their military."

Hudson is also part of a circle of wealthy and influential conservative Catholics who have been working to ally their church--traditionally a Democratic stronghold--with the Republican Party. The movement's players also include Tom Monaghan, the Domino's Pizza czar; Patrick O'Meara, CEO of O'Meara Capital Partners; Frank Hanna III, CEO of HBR Capital Ltd.; Paul Henkels, CEO of Henkels & McCoy, Inc.; Barbara Henkels of the Catholic Leadership Conference; and Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University.

Though they've been toiling for the last four years, on April 28 they made their presence known in a big way: about 1,000 Catholics came together for the first-ever National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, organized by Monaghan and others. The breakfast raised $75,000 for the Sisters of Life, an order founded by the late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, and Peter's Pence, the pope's personal charity.

In attendance was Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie; but Terry McAuliffe of the Democratic National Committee, also a Catholic, was not. The nation's most prominent Catholic politician--Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry--was not invited, explained Hudson, because he is pro-choice.

Monaghan has set up a conservative Catholic political action committee called the Ave Maria List, whose purpose is to "restore the culture of life in our country" by supporting anti-abortion candidates. According to its literature, "the List mobilizes Catholics to support and financially assist pro-life candidates, and works to defeat pro-abortion candidates and incumbents.We will target our support with laser-like precision on the most competitive races."

During the 2002 election cycle, the PAC collected $214,400 and distributed $294,065--$102,429 of it to a group called Strategic Media Services Inc., a media buying firm that took in $14 million dollars in 2002, distributing 100% of it to Republican campaigns, according to the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism group.

And conservative Catholics have been going after Kerry hard. On March 9, Ono Ekeh, founder and moderator of the Catholics for Kerry email discussion list, was fired from his job as program coordinator at the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for African-American Catholics. The firing happened after Hudson publicized Ekeh's political position in Hudson's weekly e-letter.

All during the spring, bishops in Colorado Springs, St. Louis, Nebraska, Orlando, Newark, Trenton, and Camden publicly announced they would deny Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians--most notably, of course, Kerry. Media coverage was intense. As a result, Kerry decided to take Communion in liberal Catholic centers around the country, with photographers trailing him at every stop.

After Archbishop John Myers of Newark made his announcement, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, a pro-choice Democrat, decided to refrain from the sacrament. State Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny, also a Democrat, announced he was leaving the church. He said his pastor told him he would be offered Communion once more and then would be told "not to come again."

Yet so far, pro-choice Catholic Republicans such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine; former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge; and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have not been targeted. (Deal Hudson says Collins and Schwarzenegger, who are in positions to influence legislation, should be denied Communion.)

In mid-May, 48 Catholic Democratic members of Congress, including about a dozen considered pro-life, issued a letter of protest. They said the bishops are "allowing the church to be used for partisan purposes." They also questioned why these bishops made abortion a litmus test while ignoring politicians who voted counter to the church by endorsing the death penalty and the war in Iraq.

On Wednesday (June 2), the Catholic Democrats followed with a report claiming that Kerry votes most often with the church hierarchy among Catholics in the U.S. Senate. The report, issued by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., gave Kerry an overall score of voting with the church's political priorities 61% of the time, while Republican Catholic Senators all ranked at the bottom of the list.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has set up a task force to discuss the communion issue, but its head, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, says no guidelines are expected until after the election. On May 27, during an interview with the Catholic Press Association, he said that denying dissenting politicians Communion is a "slippery slope" and that "I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to ask my priests to do it..I'm not going to have a fight with someone, holding the sacred body and blood (of Jesus) in my hand."

McCarrick and bishops who agree with him will have to face the American Life League, a Catholic pro-life group that is involved in a lobbying campaign to force bishops and cardinals to deny pro-choice Catholic senators Communion. They've vowed to spend about a half-million dollars on newspaper ads to get their message across. The most controversial at the moment is this one, highly critical of McCarrick. The organization has also written letters to 12 bishops and cardinals, each of whom has a pro-choice Catholic senator in his diocese.

The rallying cause may be abortion--but the political alliance is about much more than that. "Abortion rights is the cover for a lot of other cultural grievances," says David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church. "It's the galvanizing issue that allows conservative Catholics to side with Republicans who might be in favor of the war in Iraq, tax cuts for the wealthy, and the death penalty"--issues upon which Catholic social teaching definitely frowns.

The Catholic Church's historic alliance with the Democratic Party began to change in 1980, when President Reagan won the Catholic vote. During the Reagan years, only 46% of Catholics identified themselves as Democrats, down from 82% in 1960 (the year John F. Kennedy, the nation's only Catholic president, was elected), according to John Kenneth White, a political scientist at Catholic University. By 1996, however, Catholics had swung back to the Democratic Party, electing Bill Clinton with 53% of their vote. (In 1992, Clinton won 44%, a plurality of Catholic voters.)

John Green, who directs the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, says Democratic politicians seem bewildered by the latest Catholic swing back to the Republican Party. "A lot of Democrats have said, `Wait a minute, maybe we're not right with church teaching because of abortion, but we're right on the war and capital punishment.' That's a valid point, but the answer from many bishops and conservative Catholics is that abortion takes priority. And a lot of them have moved toward the Republican Party precisely as abortion becomes the priority."

The Kerry campaign seems to have finally taken note of the GOP's Catholic initiative. While the website of the GOP contains entire sections devoted to Catholics and other faith groups, there is no such thing on either the Kerry website or the Democratic National Committee's.

But on Wednesday, Mara Vanderslice, Kerry's new director of religious outreach, said the campaign plans to organize "People of Faith for Kerry" coordinators in about 15 battleground states, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Oregon, New Mexico, and Colorado. By the end of June, the campaign also hopes to launch a "people of faith" section on its website.

Vanderslice says the campaign is targeting nuns and other groupings of Catholics. "Believe me, there are millions of Catholics who support John Kerry," she says. "My phone is ringing off the hook all day long."

Vanderslice ticked off historically Catholic concerns such as labor relations and care for the poor as Kerry issues, but she was less comfortable talking about abortion: "We acknowledge that there are differences on some issues, but it's important to know that Catholics are not single-issue voters," Vanderslice said.

Still, all Catholic politicians must deal with abortion. As a result, what started out 20 years ago as a few isolated clashes between politicians and church officials (Mario Cuomo and Cardinal John O'Connor in 1984, for example) has become more formalized. Meanwhile, "these more obvious alliances with Republicans are becoming very common. And the hierarchy is becoming part of it. Their statements are evidence of that," says Green.

But most Catholic parishes and bishops are building their connections with Republicans through "a wink and a nod," he says. If a layperson interested in mobilizing a parish for conservative political purposes asks the priest for a mailing list, or wants to set up a table to distribute political literature in the narthex, the priest will usually look the other way. "They don't endorse it but they let it happen," Green says.

That is a major change from even a decade ago. At that time, a right-to-life advocate and an anti-death penalty protestor would have had similar experiences if they'd asked to organize politically in a parish. "Some priests would have said, `Do this, and I won't get in your way.' Some would have said `no.' But because of the increasing priority of abortion, I think many priests are now likely to sanction pro-life political activities, but not other activities--even [against] the death penalty."

What is also interesting about the emergence of the movement is its alliance with evangelicals, who form the base of the Republican Party. For example, the evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, in its May 27 weblog, published the following: "Some bishops don't want to use Communion as a threat when dealing with pro-choice Catholic politicians. But it is certainly appropriate."

Southern Baptist Convention president Al Moeller took up the Kerry and Communion issue in a two-part series in his weblog a month ago. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer have also written opinions critical of Kerry's Catholicism.

Southern Baptist Richard Land, who is close to the Bush Administration, said he doesn't see a problem with evangelicals weighing in on the matter. "Catholic doctrine is pro-life, and for a Catholic to be running for president who is not pro-life is inconsistent with his Catholicism," says Land. "I would think Catholics are going to be more offended by Kerry and his pro-abortion politics than non-Catholics. As a Southern Baptist, I was more offended by Bill Clinton and Al Gore (who are both pro-choice) because they are Southern Baptists."

What is amazing about these comments is that in 1960, the last time a Roman Catholic Democrat ran for president, evangelical leaders warned that electing John F. Kennedy would be like handing the Oval Office to the Antichrist.

Yet a new nationwide poll has found that evangelicals view Pope John Paul II more favorably than either the Rev. Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. The poll, conducted by Greenberg Quinian Rosner Research in Washington, found that Falwell's favorability ranking among evangelicals was only 44 on a 0 to 100 scale. Robertson ranked 54. The pope, however, came in at 59.

And that is great news for conservative Catholics, who Hudson believes can attain the same level of political power evangelicals have.

"This nation's evangelical leaders have successfully shaped a bloc with real power to deliver votes and affect policy," he wrote recently. "Bush's determination to connect with Catholics provides us with an opportunity to have similar clout."

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