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BY Tim Drake
In a 47-minute meeting in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, eight members of the press, most of whom represented Catholic publications, met with President Obama this morning.
In addition to Father Owen Kearns, editor in chief and publisher of the Register, those attending were representatives from America, Avvenire/Vatican Radio, Catholic News Service, Catholic Digest, Commonweal, National Catholic Reporter and The Washington Post.
Obama began with brief remarks and then gave each representative the opportunity to ask one question.
In his remarks, the president said that he had a wonderful conversation with Pope Benedict XVI right after his election. He said that he sees his visit with the Holy See in some ways like any other government in that there will be areas of agreement and disagreement. He also said that he sees the Holy See as more than a government because of the Church’s influence on this country and the world. He said that it would be a great honor to meet the Pope and was looking forward to talking about the Middle East, climate change and immigration.
“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 conscience-clause protection in place, and that it would not be weaker than the one that was already in place before President Bush’s 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.”
In attendance with Obama and Father Kearns were: Joseph DuBois of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives, Denis McDonough of the National Security Council, Joseph Feuerherd of the Reporter, Patricia Zapor of CNS, Father Drew Christiansen of America, Jacqueline Salmon of the Post, Dan Connors of Catholic Digest, Paul Baumann of Commonweal magazine and Elena Molinari of Avvenire/Vatican Radio.