Evangelicals & Catholics together

If Time magazine can name Rick Santorum, a lifelong Roman Catholic, as one of the top 25 evangelicals in America, Santorum is happy to extend the ecclesial mix and match to President Bush, whom he calls America's first Catholic president. Santorum's remarks about Bush are not new, but are revisited in "The Believer," an 8,200-word profile by Michael Sokolove that appeared in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Santorum first made the remarks to John Allen Jr., the National Catholic Reporter's Vatican correspondent, in January 2002. As Sokolove makes clear, with his comparison to Toni Morrison's remark that Bill Clinton was the nation's first black president, Santorum was speaking symbolically:

In 2002, in a little-noticed interview that took place in Rome, Santorum told National Catholic Reporter, a U.S.-based weekly, that he considered George W. Bush, a Methodist, to be "the first Catholic president of the United States." (His remark was reminiscent of the novelist Toni Morrison's saying that Bill Clinton was the nation's first black president, although an obvious difference is that there actually has been a Catholic president.) Santorum explained his claim to me: "What I meant was if you look at the two major issues of the church, it's sanctity of life, sanctity of marriage and the family -- and third is care for the poor. And you have a president who is consistent with Catholic social teaching on all of these issues."

And what about John F. Kennedy? Santorum says he believes that in a political sense, Kennedy shed his Catholicism. (Kennedy's most famous statement on church and state was: "I do not speak for my church on public matters -- and the church does not speak for me.") "I can understand and even defend him in some respects for doing so," Santorum said. "There was still a very anti-Catholic bias, certainly among Southerners." Other Catholic politicians, he continued, "have sort of adopted that same line, that they are going to hold that part of themselves off to the side, which has led to people who want to completely separate moral views from public life, which is a dangerous thing."

Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, is far from Santorum on most social issues but close to him personally. A Catholic, she has attended the catechism classes he holds in the Capitol. She wasn't familiar with his statement in National Catholic Reporter and let out a little chortle upon hearing it. "That is so vintage Rick," she said. "One of the things I like best about him is he is completely authentic. I would draw the line differently than where he does. But he believes there should be more of an intertwining of government and religion, and he believes it passionately."

As this blog has noted before, evangelical Richard Land once spoke of the greater solidarity he felt with Pope John Paul II than with some of his fellow Southern Baptists. In that light, there's nothing terribly unusual in Santorum's remarks, except his provocative insistence that Bush behaves more like an observant Catholic than some public officials who belong to the Catholic Church.

Sokolove's tone suggests a certain admiration for -- but clearly not agreement with -- Santorum's passion for prolife issues and faith-based assistance to the poor. He explores the irony that the Democratic Party, which barred Bob Casey from the speaker's podium in 1992, now feels such enthusiasm for Bob Casey Jr., who shares his late father's opposition to abortion. One difference already is clear in the prolife positions of the younger Casey and Santorum: Casey's campaign manager has criticized Santorum as "the only member of Congress to intrude on Terri Schiavo's hospice."

Sokolove further captures the cultural divide on issues of fetal life in describing how Santorum and his family handled the death of baby Gabriel Michael Santorum, who died in the womb:

The childbirth in 1996 was a source of terrible heartbreak -- the couple were told by doctors early in the pregnancy that the baby Karen was carrying had a fatal defect and would survive only for a short time outside the womb. According to Karen Santorum's book, "Letters to Gabriel: The True Story of Gabriel Michael Santorum," she later developed a life-threatening intrauterine infection and a fever that reached nearly 105 degrees. She went into labor when she was 20 weeks pregnant. After resisting at first, she allowed doctors to give her the drug Pitocin to speed the birth. Gabriel lived just two hours.

What happened after the death is a kind of snapshot of a cultural divide. Some would find it discomforting, strange, even ghoulish -- others brave and deeply spiritual. Rick and Karen Santorum would not let the morgue take the corpse of their newborn; they slept that night in the hospital with their lifeless baby between them. The next day, they took him home. "Your siblings could not have been more excited about you!" Karen writes in the book, which takes the form of letters to Gabriel, mostly while he is in utero. "Elizabeth and Johnny held you with so much love and tenderness. Elizabeth proudly announced to everyone as she cuddled you, 'This is my baby brother, Gabriel; he is an angel.'"

Please respect our Commenting Policy