The busy, busy White House beat

It’s been a big couple of weeks for Catholic news connected to the White House.

An interview with President Barack Obama, a gathering of the President’s Council on Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, the meeting last Friday between the president and Pope Benedict XVI, and, today, the opening of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor and the announcement that Dr. Regina Benjamin has been nominated as surgeon general.  Both women are Catholic, though Sotomayor apparently has not been particularly active in a church recently.

President Barack Obama holds a round-table briefing with journalists from the Catholic press and the Washington Post in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington July 2. (CNS/White House)

President Barack Obama holds a round-table briefing with journalists from the Catholic press and the Washington Post in the Roosevelt Room of the White House July 2. (CNS/White House)

The round-table interview President Barack Obama gave to eight religion reporters and editors on July 2 was itself a goldmine of material.

We at CNS had separate stories about the president’s clarification of his intentions on a federal conscience clause for health care workers; his family’s quest for a church in Washington; discussion of his efforts to get pro-life and pro-choice camps working together on abortion reduction and on his hopes for his meeting with Pope Benedict the following week.

That last theme was the announced point of the press event, scheduled as a lead-in to the meeting with the pope, the two leaders’ first in-person encounter, which took place July 10 at the end of Obama’s visit to Italy for the G-8 summit.

Most of us in the interview at least tried to frame our questions in light of something related to Pope Benedict. However, as Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen points out in his blog on America magazine’s Web site, most of the questions were ultimately about U.S. domestic issues.

Some of our clients have asked me whether the interview was just so much spin, intended to boost Obama’s image among Catholics before the papal meeting. Of course something like that was part of what the White House had in mind. And everyone in the Roosevelt Room knew it.

But there were no restrictions on what we asked. The president took on all our questions — papal meeting-related and not — and answered them in depth, demonstrating a good grasp of why the issues we raised are important to our readers.

In the end, the round table served all our interests. Seven Catholic publications, none of which has the capability to staff the White House press room on a full-time basis (and a religion writer for the Washington Post who also doesn’t usually cover the White House), got our first access to the president. He was gracious and very engaged in our discussion.

No such meetings with religion media — at least none that included the mainstream Catholic press — ever took place during the administration of President George W. Bush.

President Bill Clinton had the Catholic press in once for a similar round table and on a second occasion I was included with religion reporters from various denominational press for another group interview.

The round table on July 2 was a part of outreach to religion media — and to religious leaders in general – that has far exceeded efforts of any presidential administration in the nearly two decades I’ve been on this beat.

Though there are surely detractors, this approach apparently has the backing of many on the White House staff.

One of those executive staff members, Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, accompanied Obama on his visit to the Vatican, briefing reporters before and after the meeting with the pope.

But much of the groundwork in making arrangements and briefing the president before the meeting was the work of Obama’s main Catholic adviser, Mark Linton.

Though Linton’s official job is at the office for faith-based outreach at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he’s continued to serve the role he had during the presidential campaign, as a liaison between Obama and Catholic leaders and communities.

Given the course of interactions with the Catholic Church in these first six months — from the uproar over Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame to the reversal of the Mexico City policy on funding for family planning organizations, from ongoing collaboration between church-based organizations on immigration and health care legislation to the visit to the Vatican — Linton has more than had his work cut out for him.

Amid all that, I’m glad he remembered to invite the Catholic press in for a chat with the president.

Updates on billion-dollar campaigns in Catholic higher education

The Chronicle of Higher Education issued its monthly report on the progress of the 33 U.S. colleges and universities currently in campaigns to raise $1 billion or more. Of the 33, two are Catholic institutions of higher education.

According to the Chronicle, Boston College had raised $587 million as of May 31 towards its goal of $1.5 billion by 2010.

Indiana’s University of Notre Dame raised the second largest amount of money in a single month, after Brown University, when it pulled down $43.7 million in May. The total put it over its total campaign goal of $1.5 million by 2011. Golden Domers have raised $1.531 billion.

The only other U.S. university to achieve its campaign goal ahead of time is the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute, in New York, which already has hit $1.408 billion on its $1.4 billion goal by the end of 2009.

Who’s after the biggest prizes in college fundraising? Stanford with a $4.3 billion goal by 2011, followed closely by Columbia and Cornell, both with $4 billion goals by the same year.

Are other Catholic colleges and universities in the midst of campaigns. You bet. But Boston College and Notre Dame have the biggest targets.

New surgeon general nominee is a CHA board member

Dr. Regina Benjamin poses for a portrait in the waiting room at her temporary clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala, Sept. 18. Benjamin, founder and CEO of Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic, has been awarded a $500,000 fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. (CNS/courtesy MacArthur Foundation)

Dr. Regina Benjamin poses for a portrait in the waiting room at her temporary clinic in Bayou La Batre, Ala., last September. (CNS/courtesy MacArthur Foundation)

Dr. Regina Benjamin, a member of the board of trustees of the Catholic Health Association, is being nominated as surgeon general this morning.

We had this story on Benjamin last fall, when she received a MacArthur fellowship for her work with medical clinics in poverty-stricken areas of Alabama.

Benjamin did her undergraduate studies at Xavier University in New Orleans and in a 2005 speech she talked about the Catholic parish she grew up in, and how her grandmother’s land donation made it possible to create a parish for blacks who experienced segregation in the primarily white church.

CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta last winter was reportedly a leading candidate for the position but withdrew his name, citing demands of time and pressure on his family.

Year for Priests: Grateful to serve, despite challenges

By Father Kenneth J. Doyle
One in a series

On June 29, I posted my first blog regarding the Year for Priests.  I confess to having been a bit surprised at the reaction, termed by one observer a “minor firestorm.”

In that entry, I described a “typical” day in the life of a parish priest, which often becomes a whirlwind of meetings, appointments, phone calls, crisis management, etc., in addition to celebrating the Eucharist and the other sacraments and praying the Liturgy of the Hours.  I made a plea for carving out a 10-minute “sacred space,” preferably at the beginning of the day, for quiet conversation with the Lord.

Several of the respondents considered this a “minimalist” approach and noted that the priest must be, beyond all else, a “man of prayer.”  I did anticipate those comments and, believe me, a more extended period of quiet would be a real bonus; but the reality is that much of a priest’s day is spontaneous and dictated by events beyond his control.

What surprised me, though, was the reaction from a woman who called my “typical” day “bleak and soul-deadening” and worried that her son would find no joy that might attract him to a similar calling.  (I did mention the need for “play” and that I was looking forward to attending a Red Sox game with a couple of old friends, but maybe this reader was a Yankee fan!)

I just don’t believe that “busy” equates with “bleak” because the very reason I became a priest was to be busy with the Lord’s work.  And it’s no coincidence that study after study describes priests as among the happiest and most content of all American males.  (This result is consistent in every survey I’ve read about over the last two decades, including those done since the avalanche of publicity on the tragedy of clergy sex abuse.  Evidently most priests are embarrassed and angry about those crimes but feel that parishioners are savvy enough to assign them to the vast minority of priests.)

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said that if  Christians really believed what they say, they would smile more than they do.  I guess that I probably smile a lot, because I believe in what I do and I like doing it.  (I’m reminded of Stan Musial, who said that he felt guilty being paid for playing baseball, something he enjoyed doing so much.)

I once read that the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is this: an optimist wakes up and says ‘Good morning, Lord” while a pessimist, upon waking, says “Good Lord, morning!”  I wake up each day grateful for the chance to serve God’s people as a priest.

Father Doyle, a priest of the diocese of Albany, N.Y., has served as pastor of a large suburban parish for the last 17 years; he is also chancellor of the diocese for public information. Ordained in 1966, he has also been a high school religion teacher, editor of a diocesan newspaper, bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service, lawyer/lobbyist for the New York State Catholic Conference and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Click here for more in this series.

McNamara showed concern for poor, vulnerable

In his message to leaders of the Group of Eight meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, and in his new encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI urged wealthy nations to remember the poor in their own countries and their responsibility to poor nations and to care for the most vulnerable members of society.

So it was interesting to discover that the late Robert McNamara expressed similar sentiments when he was president of the World Bank in an interview carried by CNS — then called National Catholic News Service — in the 1970s.

Hidden in our archives was a Q&A of McNamara conducted by San Francisco’s archdiocesan newspaper, then called The Monitor, in which he talked about his views about America’s role in helping those less fortunate. He called the United States one of the “poorest performers” in assisting others’ development and claimed domestic animals living in America had “a better standard of nutrition that hundreds of millions of children in the developing nations.”

McNamara, who died July 6 and was perhaps best known for his role in the Vietnam War as U.S. defense secretary, was about halfway through his 13 years as president of the World Bank in 1976 when the Catholic news article was published.

In it McNamara commented on growth in both developing and developed countries, saying per capita income for developing countries remained at a near stagnant level while per capita income for those living in developed nations almost doubled.

And beyond such numbers, McNamara said he thought there was a great problem in the distribution of wealth among even the richest of nations.

“There are serious inequalities in their income-distribution patterns. Not only do the 170 million absolute poor in their societies suffer the same deprivations as those in the poorest countries, but hundreds of millions more subsist on income levels less than a third of the national average,” McNamara said.

Similar to what Pope Benedict has been emphasizing, McNamara stressed that giving help to those less fortunate should always be a priority for able nations and their citizens.

“The affluent nation, understandably preoccupied with controlling inflation, and searching for structural solutions to their liquidity imbalances, may be tempted to conclude that until these problems are solved, aid considerations must simply be put aside,” McNamara said. “But aid is not a luxury – something desirable when times are easy, and superfluous when times become temporarily troublesome. It is precisely the opposite. Aid is a continuing social and moral responsibility, and its need now is greater than ever.”

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