President George W. Bush on Friday morning addressed the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, speaking about his pro-life actions in office, the importance of the Catholic school system, and his common ground with Pope Benedict XVI in advancing interreligious dialogue and religious freedom around the world.
The president told the crowd that he had “finally begun to understand the story of the calm and the rough seas.”
President Bush said the papal visit had lifted the spirit of the week. “This has been a joyous week. It's been a joyous time for Catholics - and it wasn't such a bad week for Methodists, either,” said the president, a Methodist. "The excitement was just palpable. The streets were lined with people that were so thrilled that the Holy Father was here.''
"One of the blessings of being the president,” Bush said, “is I get to see firsthand how people are motivated by the fundamental truths articulated by the Holy Father… I've watched you live out the Gospel through countless acts of compassion and courage. I've joined with you in striving to heed the Scriptures' noble calling: to see God's image in all mankind, and to uphold the dignity of each human being on Earth.”
Bush said that Americans have worked for a culture of “tolerance and peace,” believing that religion “should be a source of understanding and grace.” Noting the Pope’s work to foster interfaith dialogue and heal religious conflict, the president said he “strongly” supported the Pope’s call for worldwide religious freedom. The president also insisted he shared with Pope Benedict concern for Christians in the Middle East and, like the Pope, he supported a “peaceful and independent” Lebanon.
“I join him in praying for a world at peace, where Christians and Muslims and Jews, believers and non-believers, can live side by side,” Bush said.
The president then moved to the pro-life front, saying that his administration “worked to uphold the dignity of human life,” since it has stopped U.S. government funding for foreign groups that promote or perform abortions. He said his administration worked to protect “unborn victims of violence” and had successfully banned partial-birth abortion.
He lauded recent breakthroughs in reprogramming adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells, saying, “we have stood fast in our belief that promising medical advances can co-exist with ethical medical practices.” Though the Bush presidency was the first to approve funding for embryonic stem cell research, the president reiterated his opposition to funding new lines of embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cell research destroys human embryos in the hopes of advancing knowledge and curing disease.
The president praised the Catholic school system, saying one of Pope Benedict’s priorities was maintaining the Church’s centuries-old educational tradition. Bush said that Catholic schools serve thousands of Catholic and non-Catholic students in some of the United States’ poorest neighborhoods. “They help minority students narrow the achievement gap. They prepare children for lives of character and purpose and success.”
Catholic schools, Bush said, are a “major national asset,” especially in “inner-city America.”
However, the president said, such schools are closing at an “alarming rate,” with nearly 1,200 Catholic schools closing since 2000. The president referenced his proposal for a $300 million Pell Grant for Kids program, the purpose of which, he said, was “to help low-income children in underperforming public schools be able to attend a private or parochial school of their choice.” He said that next week the White House would hold a Summit on Inner City Children and Faith-based Schools to consider the lack of educational options for poor urban students.
“"This is a prayer breakfast,'' the president closed. "I have finally begun to understand the story of the calm and the rough seas -- and I believe, I believe in my heart of hearts that it's because of the prayers of my fellow citizens. And today with the trust in the Lord's wisdom and goodness, I offer prayers of my own: for each gathered in the room, for the safety and success of the Holy Father's visit, and for God's continued blessings on our great land. Thank you.''