Breakfast with Bush

Religion | The president makes the prayer breakfast rounds, the pope discusses unity with liberal Protestants, and other religion news

Issue: "Summer Books 2005," July 2, 2005

President Bush is becoming a fixture at prayer breakfasts in Washington. In recent weeks, he has spoken at three of them: a National Day of Prayer at the White House (a slimmed-down version of the main one that attracts thousands each February at the Washington Hilton), the second annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in May, and the fourth annual National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast last month. "America was founded on los valores de fe y familia" (the values of faith and family), he declared at the Hispanic breakfast, prompting thunderous applause and shouts of "Yes" and "Amen" from hundreds at an auditorium. "Religion and morality were the cornerstones of this country and great democracy." The Hispanic event was founded in 2002 by Rev. Luis Cortes, head of Philadelphia-based Esperanza [Hope] USA. The evangelical social-service agency has received millions of dollars in federal grants, thanks in part to the Bush administration's emphasis on faith-based initiatives. At the Catholic prayer breakfast, organizers said they invited President Bush to speak because he "holds Catholic positions against gay marriage, abortion, and stem-cell research." Indeed, Mr. Bush praised "the Catholic contribution to American freedom" and repeated his support for "a culture of life" that rejects abortion and euthanasia. The event attracted 1,600 people, including 14 members of Congress. Not everyone was pleased. A spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State dismissed prayer breakfasts as little more than lobbying efforts that allow conservative politicians and religious groups to cater to each other. But Esperanza leader Danny Cortes insisted it is all about values, not politics.

Equal status proposal

When Pope Benedict XVI was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief doctrinal watchdog, he issued an official document in 2000 that shocked many Protestant leaders. It said that other Christian faiths, excluding the Orthodox churches, "suffer from defects" and therefore are "ecclesial communities" and not "churches in the proper sense." Only Catholics are assured of salvation, it said. But since his election in April, the new pope seems intent on mending the ecumenical fences. In mid-June, he met with leaders of the World Council of Churches, an alliance of 330 Orthodox and Protestant communions. The Vatican has had formal contacts with the WCC since 1965. He told the WCC delegation that the Catholic Church's commitment "to the search for Christian unity is irreversible." WCC general secretary Samuel Kobia suggested the pope consider three areas for further Vatican-WCC cooperation: spirituality, teaching ecumenism to young people, and dialogue on the "fundamental" issue of whether Christian churches can "recognize each other's baptism as well as their ability or inability to recognize one another as churches." "Mutual recognition of churches as churches [is] very important," Rev. Kobia told reporters afterward.

Site under construction

Organizers decided last month to postpone the public launch of Christian Churches Together (CCT), a broad new ecumenical organization spawned by leaders of the National Council of Churches (NCC) several years ago. Its debut was set for September at the National Cathedral in Washington. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, chair of CCT's steering committee and head of the Reformed Church in America, indicated the delay would give some prospective members still on the fence more time to make up their minds. So far, he said, 31 denominations and parachurch groups have formally decided to be part of CCT, including the U.S. Catholic bishops. More than half of the 36 NCC member denominations have agreed to join, but some predominantly black ones have not. They cite the presence of conservative groups, unnecessary overlap between the NCC and CCT that could compete with or threaten the NCC's existence, and other factors. For example, Bishop McKinley Young of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, which has voted not to join, told reporters that the involvement of conservatives would diminish CCT's "capacity to be responsive on the issues of peace and justice." Indeed, as envisioned, CCT will seek to be more inclusive by not issuing so many controversial statements on social and political issues, for which the NCC has been known. That's because CCT will be organized into five church "families"-Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, racial/ethnic, and evangelical/Pentecostal-and will take official action only when all five families are largely in agreement. CCT is "more a place to be together than to act together," NCC general secretary Robert Edgar said. Evangelical groups that have signed onto the CCT include the Evangelical Covenant Church, Salvation Army, Christian Reformed Church, World Vision, and Open Bible Churches. The nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, and most member denominations of the National Association of Evangelicals have not.

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