St. Damien: A model for public servants

When Congressional leaders, ambassadors and others gathered in a U.S. Senate hearing room to honor St. Damien de Veuster Nov. 19, Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva compared the work of the Belgian-born saint to that of public servants.

Bishop Silva noted that St. Damien — known for his work in Hawaii with victims of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy — was a healer, community organizer and advocate, builder, engineer, band leader and funeral director.

Mosaic of St. Damien de Veuster

“He worked tirelessly for 16 years in a place most people would not even think of visiting for fear of being touched by the dread disease of leprosy,” Bishop Silva said. “Even when he himself contracted the disease, he went on working, never feeling sorry for himself or thinking of his own needs, because the needs of those he served were paramount in his mind and heart.”

The bishop said it was fitting that, for decades, a statue of the newly ordained saint had stood in the U.S. Capitol.

“His image reminds all who come here as public servants of the tireless dedication that is required of those who offer themselves to lead the people as legislators,” he said. “The tasks and issues here are at least as complex and overwhelming as those that faced Father Damien. His statue reminds our public servants to keep going and to never lose hope, even when they seem to be overwhelmed and discouraged. His heroism inspires a similar heroic service in all of us.”

Scripture, Canada and the health care debate

The U.S. bishops' health care Web site, (CNS photo)

The U.S. bishops' health care Web site, (CNS photo)

Health care reform in the United States has gone from heated debate to raging firestorm over the past couple of months. The smoke is drifting north of the border into our sister nation, Canada. During the discussions about what universal health care in the U.S. might look like, many have held up the Canadian system for praise as a good model or ridicule as a bad one. Either way, there always has been a lot of  back and forth across the U.S.-Canadian border for medical treatments and medicines. Some are easier to get here or cheaper there, depending upon the one’s illness, insurance and personal needs or desires.

Many viewers of Salt + Light Television, Canada’s largest Catholic media operation, and an excellent one, and readers of The Catholic Register, a national Catholic Canadian newspaper based in Toronto, have wondered how Americans might view the “socialized medicine” available in Canada and if Canadian Catholics might help inform the U.S. debate in a helpful way.

Basilian Father Tom Rosica, a Scripture scholar, theologian and seminary professor, who happens to be president of Salt + Light, penned this piece on the health care debate in this week’s Catholic Register. In it, he reflects on the responsibility of all Christians to care for those in need, as well as for unborn children and the elderly.

Sometimes it helps to see how Catholics in other lands, especially our closest neighbor, see our important struggle and reflect upon their own decision to provide universal health care to their citizens.

(Father Rosica, also based in Toronto, was recently named by Pope Benedict XVI a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.)

Ambassador’s ceremony draws an eclectic crowd

A Supreme Court justice, an actor and a Catholic university president walk into the State Department…..

… and formalize the swearing in of their mutual friend, constitutional lawyer Douglas Kmiec, as ambassador to Malta.

What sounds like the opening to a stand-up routine was instead the scene in the Treaty Room at the State Department Sept. 2, a case of someone with a broad, diverse base of friends and colleagues if ever there was one.

Justice Samuel Alito, who worked with Kmiec at the Justice Department in the 1980s and is one of the six Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court; actor Martin Sheen, who is a fellow parishioner at Kmiec’s Catholic parish in California, and Vincentian Father David O’Connell, president of The Catholic University of America, where Kmiec was dean of the law school from 2001 to 2003, each had a role in the brief ceremony.

Kmiec, who is on hiatus as a columnist for Catholic News Service, holds an endowed chair in constitutional law at Pepperdine University School of Law, and previously was director of the University of Notre Dame’s Center on Law & Government, and the founder of its Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy.  As a lifelong Republican who helped write the Reagan administration’s legal arguments to the Supreme Court for overturning Roe v. Wade,  Kmiec stunned some of his friends and former allies with his support for Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign.

An article Kmiec wrote headlined “Reaganites for Obama” caught the eye of  Joshua DuBois, then Obama’s campaign director of religious outreach and now  director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“Are you for real?” Kmiec recalled being asked by DuBois in their first conversation. “Many people have asked that since then.”

Not long after Kmiec’s support for Obama became public, he was denied Communion on that basis at a Mass before he addressed a Catholic business group in California.  The priest, who was never identified, later apologized.

Kmiec went on to serve as a member of the campaign’s Catholic advisory group and wrote a book “Can a Catholic Support Him: Asking the Big Question about Barack Obama.” From his ambassadorial post, he will continue to serve the administration informally as an adviser on interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

DuBois noted that role would be especially appropriate from Malta, a historical crossroads of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Father O’Connell offered an invocation, Sheen led the Pledge of Allegiance and Alito administered the oath of office.

Afterward, Kmiec, Alito and Sheen each warmly greeted guests, many of whom asked to pose for photos with the ambassador, the  justice and the actor, who played President Jed Bartlett for seven seasons of the White House-based drama, “The West Wing.”

Despite political activism on a range of issues and his history as a “president” who Kmiec noted “didn’t raise anyone’s taxes and expanded everyone’s budgets,” Sheen said it was his first visit to the State Department.

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.

Obama cites influence of Cardinal Bernardin, prepares to meet pope

(cross-post from our Web site)

UPDATED: Read full story here

SECOND UPDATE: Two more stories here and here

THIRD UPDATE: Obama says he wants to talk with pope about aid to world’s poor

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — President Barack Obama told a round table of religion writers July 2 that he continues to be profoundly influenced by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, whom he came to know when he was a community organizer in a project partially funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

President Obama at today's meeting with religion writers. (CNS/White House)

President Obama at today's meeting with religion writers. (CNS/White House)

Obama said his encounters with the cardinal continue to influence him, particularly his “seamless garment” approach to a multitude of social justice issues. He also told the group of eight reporters to expect a conscience clause protection for health care workers currently under review by the administration that will be no less protective than what existed previously.

In addition to Catholic News Service, the round table included reporters and editors from other Catholic publications: National Catholic Reporter, America magazine, Catholic Digest, National Catholic Register, Commonweal magazine and Vatican Radio. The religion writer from The Washington Post also participated.

It was held in anticipation of Obama’s audience with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican July 10. The 45-minute session touched on his expectations for that meeting as well as aspects of foreign policy, the public criticism directed at him by some Catholic bishops and others in the church, and the Obamas’ own search for a church home in Washington.

Obama said in some ways he sees his first meeting with the pope as the same as any contact with a head of state, “but obviously this is more than just that. The Catholic Church has such a profound influence worldwide and in our country, and the Holy Father is a thought leader and opinion leader on so many wide-ranging issues. His religious influence is one that extends beyond the Catholic Church.”

He said he considers it a great honor to be meeting with the pope and that he hopes the session will lead to further cooperation between the Vatican and the United States in addressing Middle East peace, worldwide poverty, climate change, immigration and a whole host of other issues.

Several of the questions addressed the sometimes contentious relations between the Obama administration and some U.S. bishops, notably surrounding the president’s commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in May. The university’s decision to invite Obama and present him with an honorary degree led to a wave of protests at the university and a flurry of criticism by more than 70 bishops who said his support for legal abortion made him an inappropriate choice by the university.

Statements by the U.S. bishops also have chastised Obama for administrative actions such as the reversal of the Mexico City policy, which had prohibited the use of federal family planning funds by organizations that provide abortions or counsel women to have abortions.

But Obama said he’s not going to be deterred from continuing to work with the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, in part “because I’m president of all Americans, not just Americans who happen to agree with me.”

“The American bishops have profound influence in their communities, in the church and beyond,” Obama said. “What I would 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.”

He said part of why he wants to establish a good working relationship with the bishops is because he has fond memories of working with Cardinal Bernardin when Obama was a community organizer, 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,” Obama said.


Saguaro seminar stays with Obama

Religion News Service posted today on its homepage a story by reporter Daniel Burke that describes the long-lasting effect of a little-known chapter in the early career of President Barack Obama. A 1997 series of Harvard lectures on social capital, known as the Saguro Seminar, was attended by political and media luminaries of the day — and an obscure community organizer and first-term state senator from Illinois. The lectures had a profound impact. Much of what the young politician learned there has ended up framing the president’s public policy goals, and many of his fellow Saguro alumni have signed on as advisers in the Obama administration, Burke says, in his piece “Saguro seminar stays with Obama.”

Bishop D’Arcy not opposed to ‘peaceful’ protests about commencement

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (CNS) — Bishop John M. D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend said he was not opposed to “peaceful” demonstrations against the University of Notre Dame’s invitation to President Barack Obama to speak at this year’s commencement.

(full story)