On Friday, June 13, 2008, as George W. Bush met with Pope Benedict XVI, the London Telegraph reported rumors that the President is considering conversion to Catholicism. On one level, there seems little of substance in the rumor, which may have started simply because the Holy Father greeted the President in the Vatican gardens rather than in his private study, where the two men have met in the past and where Pope Benedict has received all other world leaders. A Vatican spokesman, however, said that the venue was simply chosen to parallel the welcoming ceremony that the White House held for Pope Benedict during his visit to the United States in April.
But could there be more to the rumor? Prominent Italian Catholics seem to think so. The Telegraph noted that "Several Italian newspapers cited Vatican sources suggesting that Mr Bush may be prepared to convert. One source told Il Foglio, an authoritative newspaper, that 'Anything is possible, especially for a born-again Christian such as Bush.'"
Italian Catholics, however, may not fully comprehend the theological and historical gulf that exists between Catholics and evangelicals in the United States. While both groups are concerned about many of the same social issues—including abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and homosexual marriage—American evangelicals tend to reject the liturgical nature of Catholicism, not to mention the Catholic Church's historical claim to be the Church founded by Jesus Christ.
Fr. George Rutler, a longtime friend of President Bush, claims that that last point may be decisive. Father Rutler told the Catholic News Agency that
Bush respects how Catholicism was founded by Christ who appointed Peter as the first Pope. "I think what fascinates him about Catholicism is its historical plausibility," said the priest. "He does appreciate the systematic theology of the church, its intellectual cogency and stability." Fr. Rutler also mentioned that the president "is not unaware of how evangelicalism—by comparison with Catholicism—may seem more limited both theologically and historically."
Beyond that, as the Telegraph notes, President Bush has employed a number of Catholics as speechwriters and advisors and appointed two Catholics (John Roberts and Samuel Alito) to the U.S. Supreme Court. His friend Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain, converted to Catholicism after leaving office, and his own brother, former governor of Florida Jeb Bush, converted to Catholicism when he married a woman of Mexican descent.
But perhaps the most intriguing piece of information came in the final paragraph of the Telegraph article, where the writer noted that "during the contested election in 2000, Jeb Bush travelled to Mexico and prayed to the icon of Our Lady of Guadelupe."
The Supreme Court handed the election to George Bush on December 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadelupe.
(Photo by Giancarlo Giuliani-Vatican Pool/Getty Images)