Bush, seeking Catholic votes, says he backs school vouchers

But, opposing church, presidential candidate also favors death penalty

May 27, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In a continuing attempt to mend fences with the nation's largest Christian denomination, Gov. George W. Bush told a group of Catholic journalists meeting in Baltimore yesterday that he supports school vouchers and would sign a bill outlawing a late-term method of abortion.

But Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, told the Catholic Press Association that he favors the death penalty, which is strongly opposed by the Vatican and the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops. Texas, where Bush is governor, executed 35 people last year, the most of any state.

"I support the death penalty for this reason: I believe when it's administered justly and swiftly, I believe when there's no question about a person's guilt and the person's had full access to the courts, it'll deter crime," said Bush, who spoke for about 15 minutes by video link from Austin. "I believe it sends a chilling message out to society that there will be consequences for killing somebody."

He added, "I don't believe we've executed a single innocent person." But he said that if there were any doubt about a condemned person's guilt, "if the DNA testing helps to settle a case or erase any doubt, of course I'd be using DNA evidence."

Tricia Hempel, editor of the Catholic Telegraph in Cincinnati, Ohio, who asked the death penalty question, said she was "pleased" that Bush didn't duck the issue, but added that "it's not the answer we would liked to have heard."

Bush calls himself a pro-life candidate, but "pro-life encompasses other issues besides abortion and euthanasia," Hempel said.

Bush's teleconference with the Catholic journalists - he was unable to attend because he was at his twin daughters' high school graduation in Austin - is the latest in a series of overtures to church members who were offended by his visit Feb. 2 to Bob Jones University, a South Carolina school with anti-Catholic views.

After he came under steady criticism, Bush wrote to Cardinal John J. O'Connor, archbishop of New York, stating his "profound respect" for the Catholic Church, adding that "on reflection, I should have been more clear in disassociating myself from anti-Catholic sentiments and racial prejudice."

When O'Connor died of cancer this month, Bush attended his funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.

During the teleconference before about 450 people attending the Catholic Press Association's convention at the Hyatt Regency hotel, Bush invoked the names of O'Connor, Pope John Paul II and Christian author C.S. Lewis. In laying out his vision for a "compassionate conservatism," he called on Americans "to be, in the words of Pope John Paul II, a hospitable society, a welcoming culture."

Among the issues for Catholics that he hit on was school choice. Catholics strongly endorse the idea of vouchers that would help parents offset the cost of parochial education.

"I support school choice," Bush said. "If the neighborhood school is failing in its basic mission, parents and teachers don't need more excuses. They need answers.

"Here's what I think: A parent with options is a parent with influence."

He received his loudest applause when he said he would "sign a ban on partial-birth abortion, and I hope to have an opportunity to do so."

Both Bush and Vice President Al Gore had been invited; only Bush accepted.

But that Bush made an appearance before the group doesn't ensure Catholic support. Most religious periodicals do not endorse candidates, to preserve their tax-exempt status. And Joseph Kirk Ryan, managing editor of the Catholic Standard & Times in Philadelphia and president of the press association, noted that neither candidate's positions completely represent Catholic teaching.

"It's a mix and match. Republicans are more pro-life," he said. "But if people look at the [U.S. Catholic] bishops' statements, they'll find social justice stances that sound more like a Democratic point of view."

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