Today is Presidents Day. Though America has had only one Catholic president, we’ve had some presidents with very good relationships with Catholics, including some popes. I’ve written about Ronald Reagan and those relationships. I’ve also so written about George W. Bush. Bush was very sympathetic to Catholics, so much so that some speculated that he was considering converting to the Catholic Church.
That’s something I cannot confirm, but I’m happy to recommend an excellent new book by Bush’s deputy director of public liaison, Tim Goeglein. Goeglein has written The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era. It’s a fascinating account of not only President Bush but of Goeglein’s personal rise and fall and redemption. And it’s loaded with material of special interest to Catholics.
Goeglein, a Lutheran, was in charge of White House outreach and liaison to America’s Catholic community. “The friendships and relationships I forged with Catholics were among the highlights of my time with President Bush,” writes Goeglein. “I came to see the Catholic Church as the single most important institution in the world advocating and defending the sacredness of all human life, the sanctity of marriage, the dignity faith confers on the human condition, and perhaps most importantly, the centrality of the traditional family.”
None of this was lost on the president that Goeglein served. “Although the president was not Catholic,” notes Goeglein, “he had a Catholic sensibility.”
Goeglein details President Bush’s meetings with cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and Catholic laymen, from Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to Michael Novak. He also details the three meetings that Bush had with John Paul II, two at the Vatican and one at the pope’s summer home.
In their first meeting together in July 2001, Bush and John Paul II talked about a “wide range” of issues both foreign and domestic, from religious freedom to the death penalty, the latter of which they disagreed. The pontiff appreciated Bush reinstituting the Mexico City policy banning taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood International. But perhaps most significant was their discussion of embryonic stem-cell research. Bush was studying the issue intensely, with a major policy announcement planned for August, where he would decide against government funding of embryos. That discussion with John Paul II, said Goeglein, “helped shape and mold” Bush’s thinking.
Bush’s respect and admiration for John Paul II was great. “I’m not poetic enough to describe what it’s like to be in his presence,” Bush told reporters. He added of the Catholic Church: “One of the things about the Catholic Church that I admire—it’s a church that stands on consistent and solid principle.” And John Paul II himself was solid, said Bush; indeed, in a very St. Peter-like pronouncement, Bush described the pope as “a clear thinker who was like a rock.”
In June 2004, the Protestant president conferred upon John Paul II the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award that a president can bestow on anyone.
A year later, Bush was at the pope’s funeral. He knelt in prayer at the pontiff’s casket and was (as Goeglein notes) “deeply touched.” Goeglein writes: “This scene, of an American president kneeling at the Vatican out of respect for the life of Pope John Paul II, was a great image and symbol. Both the president and the pope seemed to meet and find connection at the foot of the cross, and both knew the power and efficacy of prayer in quite moments.”
There’s much more to Tim Goeglein’s book, including other items of keen interest to Catholics—Pope Benedict among them. Alas, for more, you’ll need to buy the book. It’s worth it simply for what Goeglein writes about Bush and John Paul II.
George W. Bush wasn’t a perfect man or president, but he was a good man who made some very tough and very good decisions. And he never left Catholics out of the equation. What the Church thought was important to Bush, and worthy of his respect and consideration and deliberation. Much of what he did, with John Paul II’s approval, from the Mexico City policy to halting taxpayer funding of embryo destruction, was quickly reversed by the current president—with far worse to follow. If Bush’s successor had even a modicum of his respect for the Catholic Church, we wouldn’t be witnessing the current disaster that is the HHS “contraception” mandate. We Catholics could use a George W. Bush right now.
Happy Presidents Day, Mr. President.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include God and George W. Bush, God and Ronald Reagan, and The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007)