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Obama praises Pope’s ‘extraordinary leadership,’ vows ‘robust’ conscience clause, speaks on Church divisions, homosexuality

July 03, 2009

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A week before his audience with Pope Benedict XVI, President Barack Obama addressed eight questions from Catholic reporters and editors on July 2. The president began:

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.

The president-- who has come under fire for his administration’s proposal to rescind conscience protection clauses-- promised reporters that his administration would implement a conscience clause as “robust” as what was in place before the Bush administration codified extant protections:

I can assure all of your readers that when this review is complete there will be a robust conscience clause in place. It may not meet the criteria of every possible critic of our approach, but it certainly will not be weaker than what existed before the changes were made

The president also addressed the issue of abortion:

As I've said before, I've never been under the illusion that there are going to be-- that we were going to simply talk all our differences away on these issues. Again, I acknowledged this in the Notre Dame speech. I think there's a irreducible difference, conflict, on the abortion issue that the best we can do is suggest that people of goodwill can be on either side, but you can't wish those differences away.

So I don't yet have the recommendations. I can tell you, though, that on the idea of helping young people make smart choices so that they are not engaging in casual sexual activity that can lead to unwanted pregnancies, on the importance of adoption as a option, an alternative to abortion, on caring for pregnant women so that it is easier for them to support children, those are immediately three areas where I would be surprised if we don't have some pretty significant areas of agreement.

You identified the areas where things may be more difficult. I personally think that combining good sexual and-- or good sex and moral education needs to be combined with contraception in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies. I recognize that contradicts Catholic Church doctrine, so I would not expect someone who feels very strongly about this issue as a matter of religious faith to be able to agree with me on that, but that's my personal view. We may not be able to arrive at perfectly compatible language on that front.

Asked about the appointment of gay-rights activist Harry Knox-- renowned for his anti-Catholic rhetoric-- to his Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, President Obama addressed the issue of homosexuality:

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.

Paying tribute to the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin-- Archbishop of Chicago from 1982 to 1996-- President Obama also analyzed divisions within the Church.

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.


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