“Apologies for the short notice,” began the e-mail I received late in the afternoon on Tuesday, June 30. It was from the assistant press secretary for foreign affairs at the National Security Council, asking if I could meet with President Barack Obama Thursday morning for a “roundtable” in advance of his meeting with the pope in Rome.

Yes, I replied, yes I can. No apology necessary.

How many other reporters or editors would participate was not clear. As it turned out, there were eight of us, including the editors of America, the National Catholic Reporter, the National Catholic Register, and Catholic Digest. We gathered in a small press room in the West Wing of the White House before being taken to the Roosevelt Room adjacent to the Oval Office. Each of us would get to ask the president one question. In order to cover as much ground as possible, we divvied up topics beforehand. I volunteered to ask the abortion question. America’s Drew Chistiansen asked about cooperation between the Vatican and the administration on international issues. Patricia Zapor of Catholic News Service wanted to know about conscience clauses for Catholic health-care and social-service providers (Obama promised that conscience clauses would be at least as “robust” as they have been). This worked fairly well, and a lot of ground was covered.

We were seated at a polished conference table. A painting of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, with a no-nonsense expression on his face, stared down at us in an intimidating fashion. When Obama entered the room, he went round the table greeting each of us with a handshake. He then sat down directly across from me, in the middle, rather than at the head of the table. It is necessary to report that although Obama is supposed to be 6’2˝, he’s actually closer to 10 feet tall. There is also, as rumor has it, a glow or aura surrounding him that television cameras simply do not pick up. And then there’s his voice. You see his lips move, but his voice seems to come, in a kind of whisper, from somewhere above and beyond. Even stranger, Obama’s voice sounds nothing like it does on TV, but rather uncannily like that of John Huston’s narration in the movie The Bible.

I’m joking. Up close and personal, as they say, Obama comes across much as you might anticipate. He’s friendly, responsive, articulate, thoughtful, and eager to put people at ease. Aside from abortion and a few other issues, it can be said that he “speaks Catholic” well, especially when discussing the church’s social-justice teachings. He is quite aware that he has become something of a proxy figure, as either a villain or a hero, in the long running battle between so-called liberal and so-called conservative Catholics. Asked about belligerent remarks made about the pope by some gay-rights advocates, predictably he urged polemical restraint on everyone. He then spoke with real conviction about why gays and lesbians might legitimately feel victimized by Christian churches. “And as a Christian, I’m constantly wrestling with my faith and my solicitude and regard and concern for gays and lesbians,” he confessed, suggesting that he, like many of us, is still trying to sort out Christianity’s traditional condemnation of homosexuality with our experience of the goodness and faithfulness of gays and lesbians.

He answered my question about abortion by reiterating what he had said in his commencement speech at Notre Dame. At one level there is an “irreducible difference, conflict on the abortion issue,” he said. Still, both sides can work together to reduce the number of abortions. If given an opportunity for a follow-up question, I would have asked Obama to explain what exactly he understands that irreducible conflict to be. As long as Roe is the law of the land, the common ground the president so eloquently speaks of will continue to demand much from abortion opponents and few or no concessions from his political allies in the abortion-rights movement.

That said, I’d be happy to return to the Roosevelt Room any time, and on even shorter notice.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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Published in the 2009-07-17 issue: View Contents
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