If this is Michael Paulson's last hurrah on the Godbeat, it's a good one.
Last week, we lamented the New York Times religion writer's move to the theater beat:
This week, we were reminded why we're going to miss Paulson's expertise and storytelling talents on religion news:
Paulson's 2,000-word story on the Catholic faith of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender — appeared on the front page of Wednesday's Times:
CORAL GABLES, Fla. — He arrived a few minutes early — no entourage, just his wife and daughter — and, sweating through a polo shirt in the hot morning sun, settled quietly into the 14th row at the Church of the Little Flower.
A bit of a murmur, and the occasional “Morning, Governor,” passed through the Spanish Renaissance-style church, with its manicured grounds and towering palms, as worshipers recognized their most famous neighbor, Jeb Bush. He held hands with the other worshipers during the Lord’s Prayer, sang along to “I Am the Bread of Life” and knelt after receiving communion.
“It gives me a serenity, and allows me to think clearer,” Mr. Bush said as he exited the tile-roof church here on a recent Sunday, exchanging greetings and, with the ease of a longtime politician, acquiescing to the occasional photo. “It’s made me a better person.”
Twenty years after Mr. Bush converted to Catholicism, the religion of his wife, following a difficult and unsuccessful political campaign that had put a strain on his marriage, his faith has become a central element of the way he shapes his life and frames his views on public policy. And now, as he explores a bid for the presidency, his religion has become a focal point of early appeals to evangelical activists, who are particularly important in a Republican primary that is often dominated by religious voters.
Holy ghosts have haunted some newspaper profiles of George W. Bush's younger brother, including an in-depth Tampa Bay Times piece back in January:
Paulson's piece is not a definitive study in Jeb Bush's faith. But it's a nice start.
The Times story mixes fresh reporting -- including the scene at Bush's church and emailed responses to questions by the former governor -- with excellent research on what Bush has said in the past about his religion:
Many of his priorities during his two terms as governor of Florida aligned with those of the Catholic Church -- including his extraordinary, and unsuccessful, effort to force a hospital to keep Terri Schiavo on life support, as well as less well-known, and also unsuccessful, efforts to appoint a guardian for the fetus of a developmentally disabled rape victim and to prevent a 13-year-old girl from having an abortion. He even, during his first year in office in 1999, signed a law creating a “Choose Life” license plate.
He differed from his church, significantly and openly, over capital punishment; the state executed 21 prisoners on his watch, the most under any Florida governor since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. But he has won praise from Catholic officials for his welcoming tone toward immigrants and his relatively centrist positions on education — two issues in which he is at odds with the right wing of his party.
“As a public leader, one’s faith should guide you,” Mr. Bush said in Italy in 2009, explaining his attitude about the relationship between religion and politics at a conference associated with Communion and Liberation, a conservative Catholic lay movement.
Along with Bush's own words, the newspaper provides insight from Catholic clergy familiar with him -- from the priest who officiated at his wedding to Florida bishops who recall his time as governor:
The bishops who led Florida’s seven Catholic dioceses met annually with Mr. Bush, often opening their gatherings with prayer. Each year, the bishops would try to convince Mr. Bush that the death penalty should be ended in Florida, and each year they failed.
“Anybody could see he was a devout Catholic — he was new to the Catholic faith and took his faith seriously,” said Bishop John H. Ricard, who oversaw the Pensacola-Tallahassee Diocese when Mr. Bush was governor. “He approached the whole thing, especially the death penalty, with seriousness and respect, but we just agreed we would disagree. We were firm in our position, but I think he was sincere about his.”
But there is one significant journalism hole here. I wish that the Times had made clearer that the church hierarchy views the death penalty differently than, say, abortion or euthanasia. As I understand it, there are two levels of church doctrine and authority here. While recent popes have stated their opposition to the death penalty, as practiced in most modern societies, a Catholic's position on capital punishment is more of a matter of individual conscience. Opposition to abortion, however, is a matter of firmly stated doctrine. Thus, a Catholic politician who publicly opposes church teachings on abortion might be denied Holy Communion.
That point aside, this story is must reading for anyone interested in faith's role in Jeb Bush's life and political career.