Social justice groups meet with Obama team, Catholic bishops express doubt

Obama1 President-elect Barack Obama

President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team held an hour and 15 minute meeting on Tuesday with just over a dozen social justice groups that presented what they see as the concerns of Catholics. In response, some Catholic bishops and commentators have told CNA that they don’t believe these groups’ concerns resonate with those of the Church.

The discussion between the Obama transition team and the different representatives touched on international development and trade, health care reform, reducing abortions, immigration, domestic policy and poverty reduction, and the environment.

The meeting of the 14 different organizations was organized by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the lobbying group “Network,” which describes itself as "a progressive voice within the Catholic community" that lobbies Congress on justice and peace issues.

Sr. Simone Campbell, director of Network, told the National Catholic Reporter that the meeting was called to "acknowledge the work that some of the Catholic groups had done in the Catholic community during the election and to begin to develop relationships for ‘post-Jan. 20,’ when the new administration takes over after Obama’s inauguration."

James Salt, Organizing Director of Catholics United, explained to CNA that Catholics United participated in the meeting by highlighting "key policies that are important to Catholics.

"Specifically we want the new administration to take seriously its commitment to reduce abortions in America. People of goodwill from both sides of the conversation can agree that 1 million abortions a year are 1 million abortions too many. We wanted to make sure that the Obama administration knew this was one of our highest priorities."

Yet, when Salt was asked if Catholics United planned to hold Obama accountable for his pledge to work to reduce abortions, he was cautious. "We're hopeful that the Obama administration is with us on abortion reduction. We were not there to make asks, but rather to build consensus around real solutions."

Salt also added that no one raised the issue of Obama overturning the Mexico City Policy, which prevents American aid from going to those who counsel women on the availability of abortion.

Alexia Kelley, Executive Director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, informed CNA that there are "many efforts underway and planned" to show support for the incoming administration as well as to challenge it to keep its abortion reducing commitment.

Additionally, Kelley mentioned that the topics of how to help the poor, homeless, children and the sick during these times of economic hardship were also raised.

Both Salt and Kelley confirmed to CNA that there was no one officially representing the Catholic Church present at the meeting, although they thought that an Obama team representative had met with key bishops at the USCCB.

Bishop Thomas Wenski, a member of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, reacted to the meeting by saying, "while the Obama transition team is free to meet with anyone they wish…the fact is that the only ones who speak for the Catholic Church are the bishops.

"If the transition team wished to telegraph a message that their intention is to marginalize the bishops then there is reason for some serious concern regarding the relationship between the future Obama administration and this nation's 60 million Catholics," Wenski said.

Catholic scholar and author George Weigel expressed his doubts about the meeting’s make up. "If the Obama transition team thinks that meeting with the refugees from the Catholic revolution that never was is a way to open a dialogue with the Catholic Church in the United States, they're far less clever than I think they are. This strikes me as simply a pay-off to people who, from the Obama campaign's point of view, helped with the ground game in 2008."

The proof of the social justice groups’ commitment to promoting Catholic concerns will be in "how these ‘Platform for the Common Good’ folks help the rest of the Catholic Church defeat the Freedom of Choice Act and maintain the Bush administration's AIDS and malaria-reduction initiatives in Africa, which has helped millions more poor people than any of these groups has ever managed to do," Weigel explained to CNA.

Bishop of Madison Robert Morlino also added that the transition team must do more to dialogue with the Catholic Church. "Recognizing the stark contrast between the positions on abortion of the President-elect and the teachings of the Catholic Church, it would be a mistake for the President-elect's transition team to pretend that this meeting satisfied his promise of dialoguing with the Catholic community," he said.

The bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmsted, also weighed-in on the meeting by addressing what a Catholic organization should be emphasizing. He told CNA that “Being 'right' on any number of other issues will never outweigh the taking of human life through abortion. It would be my hope that any group calling themselves 'Catholic' would make this message abundantly clear, and express grave concern over the possibilities that the new administration may increase funding for abortions with public money or even erode conscience protections for Catholic hospitals and healthcare workers."

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Finally, Brian Burch, who heads a group of four lay Catholic organizations in the political, legal, research and educational fields, also expressed misgivings about the ability of the social justice consortium to rein in Obama’s policies.

"We are pleased to hear that the Obama transition team is interested in talking with Catholics, but caution that such conversations must be weighed against his reported plans on abortion policy, including his Cabinet selections thus far. Specifically, we remain concerned that the new Administration is composed of leading abortion advocates who are preparing to overturn a large number of existing pro-life laws, while proving hundreds of millions of new taxpayer dollars for abortion.

"The fact that transition officials are consulting a select group of Catholic organizations who supported Obama's candidacy is not surprising. Whether these groups, some of whom claim to adhere to Catholic teaching, are able to hold him accountable on the issue of life, remains doubtful."

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