So Far, Sympathetic Signals From President Bush

Following Dinner With Catholic Church Leaders

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NEW YORK, JAN. 28, 2001 (
The apostolic nuncio in the United States was upbeat in assessing last Thursday´s dinner attended by President George W. Bush and leading Catholic Church figures.

«A good beginning, very interesting,» said Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo.

He was present at the dinner held in Hyattsville, Maryland, in the residence of the new archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick. The event came on the eve of the unveiling of a Bush-administration plan to allow public funding of religious organizations engaged in assistance, volunteer work and humanitarian aid.

Other guests included Cardinal James Hickey, the outgoing archbishop of Washington, D.C.; Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Auxiliary Bishop William Lori of Washington, who was recently named the new bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

President Bush was accompanied by his wife, Laura; his national security adviser, Condolezza Rice; and legal adviser Al Gonzalez.

Archbishop Montalvo said the purpose of the dinner was to grow in reciprocal knowledge and understanding. Topics were mentioned «that concern the Church,» he said.

The Italian newspaper Avvenire quoted Susan Gibbs, spokesman of Archbishop McCarrick, commenting on the new president´s initiatives.

«The freezing of funding for organizations that promote abortion abroad was wonderful,» she said. «We have been waiting for it for eight years. The reform of education is also interesting, and the archbishop has always supported the use of the ´school check´ for parents who wish to send their children to private schools.»

Archbishop McCarrick has been «foreign minister» of the U.S. bishops´ conference, and he is a member of the Federal Commission for International Religious Liberty, formed by the State Department during the Clinton administration. As a member of this commission, he was part of a delegation that made an official trip to China, during which he met with President Jiang Zemin, to discuss questions related to freedom of worship.

According to Gibbs, Archbishop McCarrick would like to continue this endeavor of religious dialogue.

The archbishop also is a member of the executive council of the Church´s humanitarian agency, Catholic Relief Services, equivalent to Caritas in other countries. His presence at the dinner coincides with Bush´s announcement of the allocation of increased federal funds for religious volunteers.

In line with the «merciful conservatism» Bush proposed during the presidential campaign, he will create a new body designed to support confessional social action.

The initiative has sparked constitutional concerns over «separation of church and state.» But Bush responded: «When it is about saving human lives, we must look especially at the efficacy of the programs.»

He contends there is no violation of the U.S. Constitution, for two reasons. In the first place, the organizations receiving funds will be able to carry out social services, not proselytism; and, in the second place, the beneficiaries will have the possibility to choose alternative, non-confessional programs.

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