WASHINGTON — President Bush is experiencing his lowest levels of popularity since he was first elected in 2000. In early April, Congress let his signature immigration reform bill die a tortuous parliamentary death.

But one would not have guessed any of this from the enthusiastic reaction he received as he spoke to an enormous crowd of Catholic students, professionals, politicians and clergy.

Addressing the third annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Bush discussed immigration reform and abortion before an estimated 1,700 attendees at the Washington Hilton’s cavernous ballroom. The crowd gave him four lively standing ovations.

“Freedom is a right that no government can take away, because freedom is not government’s to give” Bush said. “Freedom is a gift from the Almighty, and because it is universal, our Creator has written it into our nature.”

On the topic of abortion, Bush referred to the words of the current Pope, whom he at first accidentally called “Benedictine XVI.”

“In his Christmas homily, the Pope noted that the Savior came to earth as a ‘defenseless child,’ and said that the splendor of that Christmas shines upon every child, born and unborn,” said the president. “We will continue to work for the day when every child is welcome in life and protected in law.”

In addition to the raucous cheers Bush received as he entered the room, and again when he took to the podium, the crowd cut him off in mid-sentence with a standing ovation as he attempted to note the presence at the breakfast of Chief Justice John Roberts.

“I haven’t got to the best part of the family yet,” Bush jokingly protested as he introduced Roberts’s wife, Jane.

The incident was revealing of what many Catholics perceive as the administration’s strong point — the appointment of two pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.

“Most of the people at this breakfast have abortion at the top of their minds,” said Jason Jones, a spokesman for the Virginia-based pro-life think tank Human Life International, who was in attendance.

Bush also discussed his immigration reform proposal, which faces an uncertain future as Congress returns from its Easter recess. Bush’s proposal would ramp up border security while at the same time grant amnesty and a path to citizenship for millions of foreign workers illegally present in the United States.

Hours after Bush’s speech, the bill bogged down in the Senate when Democrats refused to allow floor votes on amendments to the bill.

“I believe that the American Dream is open to all who work hard and play by the rules and that America does not have to choose between being a compassionate society and a society of law,” said Bush. “I’m confident that we can change our immigration system in ways that secures our border, respects the rule of law, and, as importantly, upholds the decency of our country.”

Bush’s speech struck a chord with Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., a Catholic.

“He’s almost like a Catholic president,” said Renzi, who attended the event with several other members of Congress, including Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

Renzi praised Bush’s immigration plan.

“It’s a good reminder of our own heritage, and it’s also a reminder of our faith and of the fact that we are a great and forgiving people,” he said. Renzi noted that among those here illegally, the vast majority are Catholics. “Many of these people are our brethren in the faith,” he said.

Renzi also defended the President’s controversial strategy for passing immigration reform — namely, the insistence that border security and guest-worker provisions must be contained in the same bill. Some commentators have accused Bush of holding border security hostage in order to achieve the immigration reform package.

“The truth of it is that the immigration reform bill needs the border security bill to pass,” said Renzi.

Chris Anspach, a civil servant who came from southern Maryland to hear Bush speak at the breakfast, said that he was pleased with the president’s speech even though he was ambivalent on the immigration issue.

“There are people in the country that are citizens, who are missing out on dollars that are going to illegal immigrants,” said Anspach. “On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to an individual who comes over here to work and then sends all his money back to his family. So I’m of two minds on the issue.”

For the second year in a row, only one Democratic congressman — Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan — was announced as being in attendance, although he was actually out of town the day of the event. Stupak’s absence was particularly noted because of remarks by the keynote speaker, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis.

In his speech on the “dictatorship of relativism” described by Pope Benedict, Bishop Morlino especially took aim at the “Statement of Principles” document, signed in late February by 55 Catholic Democrats in Congress. The document justified political support for legal abortion and cast the issue as just one of many on which Catholics could legitimately disagree. Stupak, who has a flawless pro-life voting record in Congress, was among the signers, most of whom are staunch opponents of even the slightest restrictions on abortion.

On abortion, the Democrats’ document states: “We seek the Church’s guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience. In recognizing the Church’s role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the Church in some areas.”

The document quickly drew a rebuke from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“While it is always necessary to work to reduce the number of abortions by providing alternatives and help to vulnerable parents and children, Catholic teaching calls all Catholics to work actively to restrain, restrict and bring to an end the destruction of unborn human life,” the bishops wrote. “As Catholic legislators seek to act in accord with their own consciences, it is essential to remember that conscience must be consistent with fundamental moral principles. As members of the Church, all Catholics are obliged to shape our consciences in accord with the moral teaching of the Church.”

Bishop Morlino was more scathing in his criticism at the breakfast.

“Certain Catholic legislators recently received a correction from our bishops’ conference when they attempted to promote a redefinition of ‘primacy of conscience’ as a line-item veto with regard to elements of the Ten Commandments and the teachings of the Church,” he said.

Stupak, who was reached by the Register while traveling in his district, expressed disagreement with Bishop Morlino’s comments.

“The bishops have to understand that the position we’re in doesn’t mean we have to blindly follow the Church’s teachings,” he said.

Stupak also inveighed against the notion of withholding Communion from politicians who cause grave public scandal by advocating legalized abortion and taking other positions that directly contradict Church teaching.

“There is a separation of church and state for a reason,” he said. “Please don’t use the Eucharist as a weapon against elected officials.”

Bishop Morlino’s speech also attacked such a notion of “separation of church and state” insofar as it appears to lessen Catholics’ obligations to live according to the teachings of the Church in their professional careers. The bishop stated that Catholics’ response to the “dictatorship of relativism” should not be to adopt a secularist mindset, but “to seek the embodiment of natural law in the civil law.”

“We need to insist that the existence of God, the dignity of every human being, and the definition of marriage are not Catholic curiosities that we are trying to force on the rest of the world,” he stated, “but the dictates of reason — of the natural law itself.”

David Freddoso

writes from Washington.