President Obama promised a “robust conscience clause” in a 41-minute meeting with some members of the Catholic press this morning.
The president met in the White House’s Roosevelt Room with eight members of the press who were picked by the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives. Attendees included respresentatives of the National Catholic Register, Avvenire/Vatican Radio, Commonweal, America and Catholic Digest.
Obama began the meeting with brief remarks, describing his conversation with the Holy Father just after his election, the National Catholic Register reported. The president said he looks forward to his meeting with Pope Benedict next week, especially to discuss immigration, climate change and the Middle East.
President Obama said he views the Holy See in some ways like a government, with whom he will sometimes agree and sometimes disagree, but also as more than a government, because of the influential role played by the Church across America and throughout the world.
Father Owen Kearns, editor in chief and publisher of The National Catholic Register, observed, “The most noteworthy thing during the meeting was his dispelling of what you might call the expectation of the worst regarding conscience clauses.”
Obama told those gathered that he had only reversed the Bush-administration’s conscience provisions because “it hadn't been properly reviewed” and there were questions about “how broad it might be and what its manifestations would be once implemented.”
Yet Obama assured people that “my underlying position has always been consistent, which is I'm a believer in conscience clauses.”
Once the review of the “hundreds of thousands” of comments on the clause takes place, “there will be a robust conscience clause in place.” He promised that it will not be weaker than the previous one added by the Bush administration, but admitted, “It may not meet the criteria of every possible critic.”
Father Kearns also commented on Obama’s treatment of the divide between conservative and liberal Catholics. “After the first question, from the National Catholic Reporter‘s Joe Feuerherd, the president jokingly asked, ‘Was there really [a controversy at Notre Dame]?’”
Regarding the division of opinions within the Church, Obama said he believes that “the American bishops represent a cross section of opinion just like other groups do,” said the National Catholic Reporter.
“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,” the Register said, noting the president’s remarks about U.S. bishops of that time speaking about the nuclear freeze, immigration, and the poor.
Obama recalled how “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.”
According to The National Catholic Reporter, Obama again made references to finding common ground on the issue of abortion, saying he soon expects to hear recommendations from a working group including advocates from both sides of the abortion debate.
“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.”
While acknowledging disagreement in areas such as contraception, Obama went on to say that “to the extent that we can help women avoid being confronted with a circumstance in which that’s even a consideration, I think that’s a good thing.”