04/17/2008 08:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Real Catholic Message

by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Thomas P. O'Neill III and James Roosevelt, Jr.

This morning Pope Benedict XVI addresses the United Nations. At the same time, more than a thousand Catholics will gather in a downtown Washington hotel for the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, an event that has grown in political significance since its inception five years ago. President Bush will again be joined by, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress and other leading figures from the worlds of faith and politics. Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, is also expected to share the spotlight. Two big Catholic events, but unfortunately they have little in common -- one will present a message of hope, the other a message of division.

The Vatican regards this as a pastoral visit, prudently planning to avoid politicizing it. Today, it is anticipated the Pope will urge the world to support the dignity of human life amid war and our moral responsibility to the environment while also addressing widespread human suffering and advancing the theme of hope. In remarks last week he bridged the divide between hope and the challenges that divide us by evoking the 'golden rule', "It is the law written on the human heart, on this we can all agree, so that when we come together to address other matters we can do so in a positive and constructive manner for the entire human community."

In calling on us to act on messages covering the ideological spectrum, the Pope's words may well take most people out of their comfort zones. The reason being, Church teachings do not perfectly align themselves with any political ideology. It is sadly ironic then, the breakfast organizers -- stalwart Republican operatives -- will advance the divisive partisanship of the right and seek to hijack Catholic teaching for the Republican agenda as the Pope delivers his message.

Their mission, we are told, is to gather for "worship and fellowship" and to "renew our dedication to this great Republic." All Catholics could support invocations like these. But these words mask their true intent. As in the past, this year speakers are drawn from far right sectors of the Church and society. With a Website that celebrates President Bush, dubbed "the second Catholic president" here two years ago, their message consistently emphasizes the favored issues of the political and religious right. Once again, they have excluded speakers from Catholic social service and relief agencies who represent the good works of our bishops and our Church.

As faithful Catholics who have spent our lives articulating principles of Catholic social teaching through public service, we are proud that our faith tradition, not long ago viewed as a threat to the American experiment, has reached such acceptance in our society. So it is particularly disturbing that the organizers of today's gathering have sought to exploit our faith in this manner and not followed the Pontiff's careful lead this year. Instead they are continuing to use this meal, Catholic and prayerful in name only, as a partisan Republican pep rally, rather than an authentic reflection of Catholic values in the public square.

In this presidential campaign, we find voters rejecting the style of politics where adversaries are demonized and the price of victory by one vote is never too high. Catholicism and the Pope's message provide Catholics -- from both sides of the aisle -- an avenue to common ground from which to lead.

However, the organizers bring Rovian style tactics to our faith, perpetuating the sharpening of religious differences on a narrow selection of social issues. In doing so, they contribute to painful and fruitless divisions around faith and politics, at a time when we face the most daunting set of issues in a generation. A gathering that should reflect the political and ideological diversity of Catholicism in public life and the best our faith has to offer instead seeks to perpetuate the myth that in order to be a good Catholic one must be a good Republican. Tragically, they serve neither the best interests of the Church or the country.

One of the major contributions to our country by Catholicism has been the rich tradition of Catholic teaching about war, social justice and human life, and social action on behalf these. While the Church has suffered recently, the Catholic passion for justice still informs the life of the Church's people. For Catholics, the papal visit should be a reminder of what unites us as Catholic Christians and what inspires our work for the common good and our care for the common life we share with all.