Nearly a week before the start of this year’s Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, I got a phone call from Father Sinclair Oubre, head of the Catholic Labor Network, one of the gathering’s many co-sponsors that holds a “wrap-around” meeting the day before the formal kickoff.
The discussion topics at the Catholic Labor Network meeting, he told me, would be off-the-record so that participants could speak candidly, although I would be free to talk to speakers afterward to offer comments for the record. Father Oubre then told me, “You’ll probably be getting some more calls like this.”
Technically, it wasn’t a call, but I did receive an email a couple of days later from Ian Mitchell, the Catholic social teaching education coordinator for the U.S. bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. Also off-the-record would be the issue briefings and the state captains’ meetings on the first full day of the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, but all of the strategy sessions on the gathering’s last day (which, I presume, included the Our Father that kicked off one of those strategy sessions) (oops).
No matter. Many speakers were happy to release their comments for on-the-record status, and follow-up interviews proved beneficial.
But I can remember one time when a speaker may have wished for an off-the-record proviso.
It was 2003. George W. Bush, a self-styled “compassionate conservative,” was in the White House. Republicans had strengthened their hold on the House and had regained the Senate — the first time that had happened since before Franklin D. Roosevelt — and they weren’t necessarily feeling as compassionate as the president. Moreover, Americans were half-anticipating, half-dreading going to war in Iraq.
It was in this atmosphere that Nancy Wisdo, now retired but at that time the head of the U.S. bishops’ domestic polify office, was outlining for Catholic Social Ministry Gathering participants methods of winning congressional support for more tax relief for low-income families. She said that going into the fine points of a tax-relief formula would only divert attention from the bishops’ broader agenda.
“We don’t have to understand. All we have to do is win. That’s our motto,” Wisdo said.
Perhaps a week after the gathering, Wisdo accosted me in the cafeteria at the U.S. bishops’ headquarters to ask why I had included that quote in my article. I replied that it was illustrative of the frustrations people were feeling in the political climate. I don’t think she entirely bought into my reasoning, but it seemed like she understood.