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December 1, 2006

Mr. Bush and the Catholics

Roy Meachum

You may not have noticed, especially if you're not of their faith; I am. But in their November meeting America's Catholic bishops renewed their ruling that artificial birth control is a sin.

Church members might have heaved another sigh and gone on with their lives; most apparently paid no attention. Studies have shown that as many as 90 percent of American Catholics dismiss the teaching banning contraceptives as irrelevant nonsense. It's been that way since 1968 when the curia had Pope Paul VI rubberstamp its position, meant to maintain the Vatican's dictatorship over the faithfuls' private lives. The encyclical was "Humanae Vitae," of Human Life.

Similarly, George W. Bush has lost credibility among all but the hardest core Republicans through a series of totally incredible statements; it's difficult now to say which was first. What he meant as positive and exuding self-confidence turned to mush all over his face.

From his infamous "Bring it on" to "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie," through such false claims as Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction, the president and his closest colleagues have laid colossal eggs. Not to be forgotten was the vice president's assertion Iraqis would greet U.S. invaders with flowers and kisses, in the manner of the 1944 French. Dick Cheney may have been hoping to get a smooch.

Both the Roman hierarchy and current White House gang demonstrate a nearly complete lack of knowledge of their constituencies. The church continues the mindset from all those centuries when literacy belonged to the precious few; ecclesiastical rules simply did not exist for them.

The upper classes - even when unable to read - thought little of impugning Vatican laws; their punishment happened so seldom that these exceptions became more than footnotes to history.

Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, slogging through snow to beseech forgiveness of Pope Gregory VII, was taught in Catholic schools as a caveat: Don't mess around with the church's earthly powers. And the assassination of Thomas Becket by four assassins working for England's King Henry II, one hundred years later, set the stage for the legal execution of Thomas Moore at the hands of Henry VIII. The Reformation followed.

Both Thomas's had once been the darlings of the men who did them in. Their falls from grace were too much for the unlettered faithful to follow. Besides by the 13th century's dawn, the Vatican had already taxed the world to death.

For the first four years of the Iraq adventure, Mr. Bush had steadfastly kept allegiance to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. When all the world doubted, the president believed. Believed, that is, until the November election results were in.

Remember those more than several public occasions when Mr. Rumsfeld offered publicly his resignation; only to be rebuffed. That happened so frequently that by the time the ax fell, very few truly believed Mr. Bush would dump his cabinet's foremost liability. As for Mr. Cheney, he's an elected official and exempt from walking any gangplank. His party's complete control of Congress until November's elections made impeachment totally impossible.

Truly one of the era's weirdest scenes was played out when the vice president went this week, cap in hand, to beg assistance for Afghanistan from Muslim nations; and he might get it. The Bush administration did that one right; it waited for a U.N. vote before going in. On Iraq, no such luck.

What actually happened to spark the invasion was a whole lot of phony info, the last "tidbit" came from Iraqi exiles, as had much of the misinformation. Ahmed Chalabi is suspected of telling the vice president the tyrant and both his sons were dining that very night in a Baghdad restaurant.

An air strike was ordered up and tanks rolled over the Kuwait border. Of course, neither Saddam nor his boys were found in the ruins left by Air Force missiles. Meanwhile, Mr. Chalabi and his cohorts had what they wanted: a U.S. invasion of their homeland. In the war of words, they continued to pour it on. Their objective? Mr. Chalabi in the presidential palace and all his men roosting in the higher reaches of the new government.

To that end, the dictator's army had to be dissolved and so vanished the single force capable of keeping the peace among their fellow Iraqis and in a fairly evenhanded way. That's not what the Chalabi crowd wanted. That sort of jackal feeds off the disintegration of the established order; I saw their like in post-war Europe.

At each stage of the tortuous process, Americans were given a different story. Today's weapons of mass destruction became tomorrow's all the problems come from "foreign" Muslims. That last argument smacked so much of the segregationist's favorite phrase as to drive home Washington's racist attitude toward Muslims.

Sometime after the 2004 elections, the public signaled it no longer trusted the administration; that's what underlay this fall's displacement of GOP rule. It's impossible to say exactly when it really began; Catholic disenchantment with their church fathers did not immediately appear when "Humanae Vitae" was proclaimed.

Major polls began to reflect the electorate's darker mood last winter. The president's favorable rating dropped to historic low levels. Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld found themselves unexpectedly challenged. Little of this resonated within an administration, newly convinced in 2004, that it operated on a manifesto many suggested might be "Divine" in origin.

The November GOP disaster, although clearly forecast by Republican and Democratic pundits alike, still caught Mr. Bush and his minions unawares. Maybe the secretary of defense was not surprised; the speed with which is resignation letter appeared indicated a hint of reality.

But the greater truth remains. The United States faces the next two years with a president few people believe. The danger now is that Democrats will tar themselves with the same brush of "untruthfulness." And then what does the world do?

Unlike the Roman Catholic hierarchy, however, significant change in Washington will come in 2008. The most likely GOP candidates are positioning themselves as anti-Bush and that's a good thing.

Meanwhile, more than ever, my church resembles in all facet T.S. Eliot's hippopotamus in the poem that appeared shortly after World War I, several generations ago.

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