Bush Stresses School Choice, Sanctity of Life at Prayer Breakfast

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT

(CNSNews.com) - A renewed commitment to the "dignity of human life" and greater choice in education can help to rekindle the promise of America, President Bush said during the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

The president praised Catholic Americans for the role they have played in upholding the "self-evident truths" outlined in the Declaration of Independence. He also credited Catholic schools for providing inner city students with viable alternatives, while expressing concern over the long term durability of these institutions.

"I appreciate the tremendous sacrifices many dioceses are making to keep their inner-city schools going," Bush said. "I am worried too many of these schools are closing and our nation needs to do something about it."

Catholic schools have supplied "millions of Americans" with the "knowledge and character" they need to succeed in life the president told the gathering. He said "thousands of non-Catholic" children also benefit from the schools and pledged to help Catholic schools reach others in need.

The annual breakfast, now in its fourth year, was conceived in response to Pope John Paul II's call to a "New Evangelization" for Catholics. This year's event featured two panel discussions - one on "Public Policy Issues of Interest to Catholics" and the other on "Catholics in Entertainment and the New Evangelization."

Larry Cirignano, a New Jersey Catholic activist, said he was pleased to hear the president highlight the importance of school choice initiatives, and he called for the "equal treatment" of students who desire to be enrolled in private schools.

"The funding should follow the child," he said. "The family is the first educator."

Bush acknowledged the role Catholics played in helping to pass the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act, which allows students to transfer out of public schools. He said all parents should have "peace of mind" when they drop their children off at school in the morning.

'A culture of life'

The convergence between evangelicals and Catholics on public policy issues was a common theme stressed throughout the day. Austin Ruse, vice-president for the prayer breakfast, acknowledged prominent evangelical leaders in attendance and spoke of a growing "unity" between Catholics and Protestants.

Bush, who is himself a Methodist, stressed his commitment to the pro-life cause, drawing strong applause.

"In our day, there is a temptation to manipulate life in ways that do not respect the humanity of the person," the president said, in apparent reference to the push for embryonic stem cell research and last week's Senate vote to expand federal funding for the controversial research. Bush has vowed to veto the bill, as he did with similar legislation last year.

"When that happens the most vulnerable among us can be valued by their utility to others - instead of their own inherent worth. We must continue to work for a culture of life - where the strong protect the weak, and where we recognize in every human life the image of our creator."

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) was among those in attendance and praised the president's leadership.

"He has paid a political price for being so strongly pro-life," Smith told Cybercast News Service. "It was very unpopular to veto the stem-cell bill [in 2006]. There was a lot of misinformation about it."

Smith also praised the president for "keeping his faith front and center" in the midst of severe foreign policy challenges and antagonism from both sides of the political spectrum.

"He is like Lincoln in a way," Smith said. "His critics get personal, but he doesn't. And he stands on principle, even when it gets tough."

Others in attendance included Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Sam Alito, both Catholics and the newest additions to the Supreme Court. Smith said Bush's long-term legacy will be greatly enhanced as result of elevating Roberts and Alito to the nation's highest court.

The keynote address was delivered by Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington. He told audience members their personal morality and public values were "threads of the same cloth" that could not be divided. Moreover, religious conviction helped to distinguish between what "can be done" and "what ought to be done" in the name of science, he added.

The archbishop also discussed American history in the context of "free people who recognize the sovereignty of God's law" in a series of social contracts reaching all the way to Mayflower Compact of 1620. Wuerl cited a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Henry Lee on 1825, to bolster his point about the role of religion in the American founding. In the letter Jefferson describes the Declaration of Independence as an "expression of the American mind."

The president's speech was also laced with historical references. Bush invoked Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. Carroll was not permitted to vote or hold office in Maryland, at the time, as a consequence of his religion.

"He [Carroll] knew that an America where people were free to worship God as they saw fit would be a land where Catholics would flourish and prosper," Bush said. "And he understood that whatever America's failings, our founding promise would always be a source of hope and renewal for our country. And at this breakfast, we commit ourselves to renewing that promise in our own time."

Other attendees included former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, who is reportedly considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination; and Michael Steele, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and a U.S. Senate candidate.

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