President Obama this morning met with a select group of reporters for Catholic publications, as well as the religion reporter for the Washington Post. Obama outlined his thoughts on the upcoming visit to the pope, his relationship with American bishops, the abortion issue, economic justice, and the Middle East. There was no major news, but Obama revealed a couple things I had not previously known about his faith life -- first, that he is considering choosing a group of churches in Washington, rather than a single congregation, to reduce the impact of his presence on any one community. And second, the president said that Joshua DuBois, the president's faith adviser, sends Obama's BlackBerry a devotional prayer each morning for the president to reflect on.
The president opened with a preview of his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, which is scheduled to take place July 10 at the Vatican:
"I've had a wonderful conversation with the Pope over the phone right after the election. And we in some ways see this as a meeting with any other government -- the government of the Holy See. There are going to be areas where we've got deep agreements; there are going to be some areas where we've got some disagreements. So in that sense there's a government-to-government relationship that is already very strong and we want to build on. But obviously this is more than just that. The Catholic Church has such a profound influence worldwide and in our country; the Holy Father is a thought leader and an opinion leader on so many wide-ranging issues. And his religious influence is one that extends beyond the Catholic Church. So from a personal perspective, having a meeting with the Holy Father is a great honor and something that I'm very much looking forward to. And hopefully coming out of this meeting we will be able to continue to find areas where we can cooperate on everything from Middle East peace to dealing with worldwide poverty, climate change, immigration, a whole host of issues in which the Pope has taken extraordinary leadership."
Asked about his relationship with the American bishops in the wake of their heated criticism of his appearance at the University of Notre Dame, Obama said:
"The American bishops have a profound influence in their communities, in the church, and beyond. What I will 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. So in that sense the American bishops represent a cross-section of opinion just like other groups do. Cardinal George is somebody who I've known since I was in the state legislature, and he and I had a meeting in the Oval Office and I expressed to him my interest in working in as constructive a manner as possible with the bishops on a range of issues. You know, part of why establishing a relationship with the bishops is important to me is because I have very fond memories of Cardinal Bernardin, who was in Chicago when I first arrived to be a community organizer -- funded in part by the Campaign for Human Development -- and 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. I think there are going to continue to be areas where we have profound agreements and there are going to be some areas where we disagree. That's healthy."Obama was also asked about his support for a "conscience clause" for healthcare workers, which is a goal of antiabortion groups. His reply:
"I think that the only reason that my position may appear unclear is because it came in the wake of a last-minute, 11th-hour change in conscience clause provisions that were pushed forward by the previous administration that we chose to reverse. But my underlying position has always been consistent, which is I'm a believer in conscience clauses. I was a supporter of a robust conscience clause in Illinois for Catholic hospitals and health care providers. I discussed this with Cardinal George when he was here in the Oval Office, and I reiterated my support for an effective conscience clause in my speech at Notre Dame."
And one other interesting exchange came when Obama was asked about controversial remarks made by Harry Knox, the religion and faith program director for the Human Rights Campaign, which is a gay rights organization. Knox, now a member of the Presidentís Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, has been attacked as anti-Catholic for allegedly referring to some American bishops as "discredited leaders" and calling the Knights of Columbus "foot soldiers of a discredited army of oppression.'' Obama used the question to reflect not only on the relationship between rhetoric and dialogue, but also to reflect on the relationship between the gay community and Christianity:
"You will recall that my first question I strongly defended the rights of American bishops to engage in some fairly incendiary language when it came to me, right? And I would be happy to have them be here in the White House and participate in a whole host of roundtables in which we try to work through these problems. So I can't -- I can speak for those who are on my payroll and who report to me. There are occasions in which we try to bring together groups that historically have been in conflict. There's always risks involved in doing that because many of these issues generate great passion. For the gay and lesbian community in this country, I think it's clear that they feel victimized in fairly powerful ways and they're often hurt by not just certain teachings of the Catholic Church, but the Christian faith generally. And as a Christian, I'm constantly wrestling with my faith and my solicitude and regard and concern for gays and lesbians. And to the extent that I weighed into these debates, what I often discover is that there's a lot of heat and sound and fury on both sides of these debates, even among people who I consider to be good people on either side. So I guess I would stand by my statement in Cairo that a position that dismisses religious belief and faith as intolerant without -- in a knee-jerk fashion I think is -- doesn't understand the power and good that faith can serve in the world. On the other hand, I think that those of us who are people of faith also have to examine our own beliefs and wrestle with them and assure ourselves that we're not causing pain to others. And I think any of us, of whatever faith, would have to acknowledge that there have been times where religion has been used in the service of not such good stuff. And it's incumbent upon us to -- at least in my own view -- to engage in some deep reflection and entertain a willingness to question whether we are acting in a way that's consistent with not just church teachings but also what Jesus Christ our Lord called on us to do: treat others as we would treat ourselves. Be our brother's keepers."
The journalists who were present for the interview are just starting to report on the session in more detail. Here are the reports from Jacqui Salmon of the Washington Post, Tim Drake of the National Catholic Register, Patricia Zapor of Catholic News Service, Joe Feuerherd of the National Catholic Reporter and the Rev. Drew Christiansen of America magazine. The other publications present were Avvenire/Vatican Radio, Catholic Digest and Commonweal. Each journalist got one question -- the National Catholic register spells out who asked what.
(Photo, by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP, shows President Obama at the White House on July 2, 2009.)