December 29, 1989

page 3

By Joe Feuerherd NCR Staff


WASHINGTON - President George Bush wants the Catholic church on his side. And he is using a top-down approach - personal contacts with leading members of the U.S. hierarchy - to get it.

The Reagan administration fought pitched battles with the U.S. Catholic bishops about U.S. nuclear strategy, the morality of the U.S. economy and Central America. Reagan Catholic cabinet officers, such as Alexander Haig and Caspar Weinberger, publicly challenged the bishops. White House staffers led by New Right activists in the Office of Public Liaison - Faith Ryan Whittlesey, Robert Riley and Linda Chavez - overtly gathered religious, including conservative Catholic, opposition to policies the Catholic bishops opposed.

Times have changed.

In todays White House office of public liaison, where Doug Wead, special assistant to the president, handles Catholic groups, "the tensions are a lot less - at least as they're felt here in relations between the cardinals and the president," he said. Wead, a 43-year-old evangelical Christian, puts a premium on contact with the five active U.S. cardinals - Boston's Bernard Law, Chicago's Joseph Bernardin, Detroit's Edmund Szoka, New York's John O'Connor and Washington's James Hickey.

Said Wead, "We have more contact and involvement with the cardinals now than they did with the previous administration. lt is something that has evolved, something that is possible now that might not have been possible before because of issues that came between" the bishops and the Reagan administration.

Wead, from his ofice in the Old Executive Office Building, acknowledged little contact with the bishops' Washington bureaucracy - the U.S. Catholic Conference. "There are several reasons for that," he said. Foremost among them is that the public liaison staff has been "dramatically cut back." Unlike in the Reagan era, said Wead, "there is no full time Catholic liason."

Now, said Wead, many groups that once worked through the Reagan-era liaison office "go directly to the cabinet officers and deal directly with an issue."

Said Wead, "this administration has appointed more [Roman] Catholic cabinet officers than any other in American history. We want the church to feel loved and wanted, and we want them to have input."

(Bush has five [Roman] Catholic cabinet members: Interior Secretag Manuel Lujan, Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos, Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, Energy Secretary James Watkins and Veterans Affairs Secretary Edward Derwinski.)

Of the five cardinals, Boston's Law is a favorite of both Bush and Wead. Bush and Law met in 1985, said Wead. They became quick friends, spoke to each other often and, now, said Wead, "have a good relationship."

Said Wead, "the president never talked about, publicized or let anyone know about his relationship with Cardinal Law through the political campaign. And that would have been a very interesting story - the cardinal of Boston (and Bush) with Dukakis running."

A particular sign of Bush favor: Both Law and O'Connor have spent at least one overnight at the White House as presidential guests.

Wead, described by the Washington Times as a "major messenger to conservative organizations" and the coauthor of a book with former Interior Secretary James Watt, has a long-standing relationship with Law. A Missouri native, Wead knew Law when he was bishop of Missouri's Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese and said he served on several committees with him.

In those days, Wead recalled, he helped finance a television show Law was hosting. Said Wead, "I had long conversations with him before he was a cardinal and before I was here. I like him and I trust his judgment."

Of published reports that a Law meeting with Bush at his Kennebunkport, Maine, home influenced the presiden't's thinking on abortion, Wead said, "I wasn't at the meeting, but that sounds like President Bush and that sounds like Cardinal Law."

Wead's conversations with the cardinals have ranged from the serious ("we're not afraid to call Cardinal O'Connor if we have a troubling political question") to the mundane ("a troubling question of etiquette on which we might otherwise be embarrassed to show our ignorance of").

"This has been a Catholic year," pronounced Wead, who frequently injects scriptural quotations into his conversation. Wead recounted Bush meetings with the five cardinals at the White House famiiy quarters within a month of his inauguration.

Said Wead, "I'd get in trouble if I told you what religious groups" have not been invited to the family quarters.

Bush has met with Catholic educators and attended the annual Washington, D.C., "Red Mass" for Catholic lawyers, said Wead. Continued Wead, "He (Bush) has been more sensitive and more accessible to the needs of the [Roman] Catholic church than any president I know of in American history."

Wead's other Catholic contacts include representatives of the Washington chapter of the Knights of Malta, a Catholic, monied fraternal organization, plus members of the one-time Catholics for Bush-Quayle campaign committee.

Will the Bush-cardinals' intimacy be productive on major Catholic issues? Bush has reason to think so. At a Dec.12 fund-raiser for The Catholic University of America, with church leaders in attendance, Bush spoke on four cardinal- pleasing topics.

As Bush dwelt on abortion, voluntary school prayer, child care that recognizes church day-care providers, and vowed to "do everything we can to bring to justice" the murderers of six Salvadoran Jesuits, he knew he had the audience on his side.