Obama meets the (Catholic) press…
The current president has cited the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin before, most recently in his speech at Notre Dame: ”He was a kind and good and wise man,” Barack Obama said then of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. “A saintly man.”
And the “Common Ground” approach of Chicago’s Bernardin and Chicago’s Obama have great resonances. At a meeting this morning with eight [mainly] Catholic journalists ahead of his meeting next week with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, Obama invoked Bernardin again–and, as the WaPost’s Jackie Salmon writes, he “promised a ‘robust’ federal policy protecting health-care workers who have moral objections to performing some procedures.” (I think that’s the sound of another anti-Obama talking point falling.)
Tim Drake at the National Catholic Register has a write-up (the other NCR was also there, represented by editor Joe Feuerherd) based on a conversation with his publisher, Father Owen Kearns, who attended:
“The most noteworthy thing during the meeting was his dispelling of what you might call the expectation of the worst regarding conscience clauses,” said Father Kearns. “He said that the confusion regarding the issue was due to the timing of everything rather than what he was going to do. His administration saw the previous administration’s 11th-hour change as problematic, and so they undid that. He said that in Illinois he was a supporter of a robust conscience clause, something he reiterated in his Notre Dame speech. He added that the government has received hundreds of thousands of public comments and he promised that there would be a robust conscious clause protection in place, and that it would not be weaker than President Bush’s 11th hour change. Still, he added, it won’t please everybody.”
In addition, Father Kearns noted the president’s analysis of the divide in Catholicism.
“The president said he had fond memories of Cardinal Bernardin and that when he started his neighborhood project, they were funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development,” he said. “After the first question, from the National Catholic Reporter‘s Joe Feuerherd, the president jokingly asked, ‘Was there really [a controversy at Notre Dame]?’”
“The president spoke about how during Cardinal Bernardin’s time the U.S. bishops spoke about the nuclear freeze, the sanctuary movement, immigration, and the poor, but that later a decided change took place,” added Father Kearns. “He said that the responses to his administration mirror the tensions in the Church overall, but that Cardinal Bernardin was pro-life and never hesitated to make his views known, but he had a consistent ‘seamless garment’ approach that emphasized the other issues as well. The president said that that part of the Catholic tradition continues to inspire him. Those issues, he said, seemed to have gotten buried by the abortion debate.”
Paul Baumann represented Commonweal and he may have more at some point. Joe Feuerherd also has these bits just in:
Asked whether he sometimes felt he has been “dragged into a largely intra-Catholic family fight” on issues that divide liberal and conservative Catholics, Obama again recalled Bernardin’s example, particularly as it relates to the “seamless garment” of life issues the late cardinal saw as integral to Catholic teaching.
“Cardinal Bernardin was strongly pro-life, never shrank away from talking about that issue, but was very consistent in talking about a seamless garment and a range of issues that were part and parcel of what he considered to be pro-life, that meant that he was concerned about poverty, he was concerned about how children were treated, he was concerned about the death penalty, he was concerned about foreign policy.
“And that part of the Catholic tradition is something that continues to inspire me. And I think that there have been times over the last decade or two where that more holistic tradition feels like it’s gotten buried under the abortion debate.”
The president continued, “Now, as a non-Catholic, it’s not up to me to try to resolve those tensions. As I said, all I can do is to affirm how that other tradition has made me, a non-Catholic, I think reflect on how I can be a better person and has had a powerful influence on my life. And that tells me that it might be a powerful way to move a broader set of values forward in American life generally.”
Meantime, Pat Zapor at CNS was also there and reports in:
Obama said his encounters with the cardinal continue to influence him, particularly his “seamless garment” approach to a multitude of social justice issues. He also told the group of eight reporters to expect a conscience clause protection for health care workers currently under review by the administration that will be no less protective than what existed previously.
In addition to Catholic News Service, the round table included reporters and editors from other Catholic publications: National Catholic Reporter, America magazine, Catholic Digest, National Catholic Register, Commonweal magazine and Vatican Radio. The religion writer from The Washington Post also participated.
“>Obama said in some ways he sees his first meeting with the pope as the same as any contact with a head of state, “but obviously this is more than just that. The Catholic Church has such a profound influence worldwide and in our country, and the Holy Father is a thought leader and opinion leader on so many wide-ranging issues. His religious influence is one that extends beyond the Catholic Church.”
He said he considers it a great honor to be meeting with the pope and that he hopes the session will lead to further cooperation between the Vatican and the United States in addressing Middle East peace, worldwide poverty, climate change, immigration and a whole host of other issues.
Several of the questions addressed the sometimes contentious relations between the Obama administration and some U.S. bishops, notably surrounding the president’s commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in May. The university’s decision to invite Obama and present him with an honorary degree led to a wave of protests at the university and a flurry of criticism by more than 70 bishops who said his support for legal abortion made him an inappropriate choice by the university.
Statements by the U.S. bishops also have chastised Obama for administrative actions such as the reversal of the Mexico City policy, which had prohibited the use of federal family planning funds by organizations that provide abortions or counsel women to have abortions.
But Obama said he’s not going to be deterred from continuing to work with the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, in part “because I’m president of all Americans, not just Americans who happen to agree with me.”
“The American bishops have profound influence in their communities, in the church and beyond,” Obama said. “What I would say is that although there have been criticisms leveled at me from some of the bishops, there have been a number of bishops who have been extremely generous and supportive even if they don’t agree with me on every issue.”
He said part of why he wants to establish a good working relationship with the bishops is because he has fond memories of working with Cardinal Bernardin when Obama was a community organizer, working with Catholic parishes on the South Side of Chicago.
“And so I know the potential that the bishops have to speak out forcefully on issues of social justice,” Obama said.
It’s interesting that if Bernardin was something of a prophet without honor in his own country–his common ground initiative met sharp resistance from his fellow cardinals–his ideas and spirit live on elsewhere. Salt of the earth, as Joseph Ratzinger (and someone before him) once put it.
Will Obama’s Bernardinesque approach work for America, or American Catholics?
(Above is White House photo via NCRegister)