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 Washington Notebook

March 31, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 12

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Washington 
Correspondent
jfeuerherd@natcath.org
 

"[Condoleezza Rice] assured us that the president wants the funding that he has formally requested and [the] church leaders said to her, 'get it.' "

The Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World,
talking about lobbying at the White House for African AIDS funds

 

Christian leaders lobby Rice, key in day care funding vote; Readers respond to 'Catholic for Kerry'

By Joe Feuerherd

How significant is the voice of Christian churches in Washington?

Important enough to get "face time" with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice during a week in which she was responding to former terrorism czar Richard Clarke's accusations. And influential enough to add $6 billion in day care funds to legislation needed to reauthorize federal welfare programs.

Gathered in the White House's Roosevelt Room March 26, religious leaders from nine major U.S. Christian denominations made the case to Rice for fully funding the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), a foreign aid initiative, and for the Global HIV/AIDS Initiative. The administration has requested $5.3 billion for the two initiatives, which the religious leaders say is $1.6 billion shy of what is needed to keep President Bush's pledges of assistance. House appropriators, meanwhile, are planning to cut the president's request by an additional $800 million.

"[We came] with one voice to say that our church bodies are committed to reducing poverty by eliminating hunger and to respond to the crisis of AIDS in the world with all the resolve we can muster, borne out of our faith and our moral persuasion," said Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "And I think they know that we are not going to go away from that commitment because it comes out of the very foundation of our faith."

The group urged Rice to get active on the issue. "She assured us that the President wants the funding that he has formally requested and [the] church leaders said to her, 'get it,' " said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, the group that organized the lobbying effort. "It's not clear right now that the administration is lobbying the House to get the numbers let alone the somewhat larger numbers the president promised in past speeches," said Beckmann.

When it comes to funding the AIDS initiative, there's a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument underway. House Republicans and the Bush Administration contend that African countries and the faith-based groups providing care (such as Catholic Relief Services) don't have the "capacity" to wisely spend the billions they are requesting; the religious leaders say that's not so, and even if it were, capacity cannot be expanded without additional funds.

"It's very clear that there is capacity and that every church that was represented today has indicated that they have people in the countries of Africa who [can] respond immediately and who are already very much involved," Pensacola-Tallahassee Bishop John Ricard, chairman of the U.S. Catholic bishops' International Policy Committee, told the press following a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill, the White House and at the State Department. "It is clear," said Ricard, "that there is huge capacity in hospitals, and health care services, and out-patient clinics to respond to this immediately with education programs, with treatment programs and so forth."

Joining Ricard and Hanson were leaders from the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church USA, the National Council of Churches, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Council of Bishops.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, the Senate voted March 30 for $6 billion in new funds to provide day care assistance to the parents of former welfare recipients. The money is needed, advocates argued, to make work a viable option for those leaving the welfare rolls. The funding was opposed by the Bush Administration.

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The case for the day care money was made by a host of secular groups (such as the Children's Defense Fund, the Coalition on Human Needs, and local governments), but also by mainline Protestant denominations and the U.S. bishops' conference. An example of the effort: hundreds of Catholic social welfare workers, in Washington for their annual meeting in February, fanned out on Capitol Hill to make the case for the funds.

There are, of course, no final victories. The Senate's welfare bill must be reconciled with the House's less generous version and, ultimately, signed by President Bush. Of the foreign aid funds, Bishop Ricard is both realistic and optimistic.

"The proof is going to be in the pudding," he said. "What effect this is going to have is going to depend on our consistent commitment to this and our consistent involvement. We are going to have to wait and see if they really heard us."

He continued, "When we all left the room together I sensed a strong sense of commitment on the part of everyone to remain involved as a group to tackle this very serious issue."

*****

Can a "good Catholic" vote for John Kerry, the pro-choice prospective Democratic nominee for president?

That was one of the issues raised by readers in response to a Washington Notebook item on the departure of Ono Ekeh, moderator of the "Catholics for Kerry" online forum, from his job at the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for African American Catholics.

The e-mails flew.

Said one reader: "Hurrah! At last people who call themselves Catholics who deceptively try to turn actual Catholics against their own church are paying the price!"

Wrote another: "I cannot understand how a practicing Catholic can support candidates who are pro-choice or pro-gay marriage. Am I missing something? ... I cannot understand how any Catholic can support a Democratic candidate."

No doubt where he stands: "Public support for John Kerry is like painting a picture of yourself pounding the nails into Christ on the Cross and hanging it for all to see."

On the other side: "Except for a few like Bishop Tom Gumbleton, the U.S. Catholic bishops are totally inept. I hope the NCR brings the flame to their feet on this one." And another: "I will vote for John Kerry and pray that he will be elected. I know he has the strength and the courage and the integrity to get our country back on track. Abortions are something that God has to deal with ... not politicians."

And this: "To focus on one issue of a candidate is to approach the complexities of 21st-century political life with blinders on. It is stupid in the extreme. Kerry's positions on welfare, health insurance, care for the poor, the economy, the need to be interconnected with our allies, etc. all are much more in line with Catholic teachings on social justice than Bush in his wildest dreams could ever hope for. Kerry's positions demonstrate the compassion of our church which makes a beacon of light in these dark times."

And one more: "Thanks for your piece on Ono Ekeh I found in NCRonline.org. Following this story on the Internet, I'm somewhat amazed that [Deal] Hudson and [William F.] Buckley would find this worth their while to hammer away at. Woodward and Bernstein took down a corrupt president. Conservative Catholic commentators tattle on a USCCB employee ... I think we're in for an interesting ride this electoral year."

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

 
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