Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Catholic Roots of Obama’s Activism

The New York Times

When Barack Obama arrived in Chicago in 1985 as a community organizer, he held meetings in what was then Holy Rosary Church and is now New Day Ministries.

MARCH 22, 2014

CHICAGO — In a meeting room under Holy Name Cathedral, a rapt group of black Roman Catholics listened as Barack Obama, a 25-year-old community organizer, trained them to lobby their fellow delegates to a national congress in Washington on issues like empowering lay leaders and attracting more believers.

“He so quickly got us,” said Andrew Lyke, a participant in the meeting who is now the director of the Chicago Archdiocese’s Office for Black Catholics. The group succeeded in inserting its priorities into the congress’s plan for churches, Mr. Lyke said, and “Barack Obama was key in helping us do that.”

By the time of that session in the spring of 1987, Mr. Obama — himself not Catholic — was already well known in Chicago’s black Catholic circles. He had arrived two years earlier to fill an organizing position paid for by a church grant, and had spent his first months here surrounded by Catholic pastors and congregations. In this often overlooked period of the president’s life, he had a desk in a South Side parish and became steeped in the social justice wing of the church, which played a powerful role in his political formation.

This Thursday, Mr. Obama will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican after a three-decade divergence with the church. By the late 1980s, the Catholic hierarchy had taken a conservative turn that de-emphasized social engagement and elevated the culture wars that would eventually cast Mr. Obama as an abortion-supporting enemy. Mr. Obama, who went on to find his own faith with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.’s Trinity United Church of Christ, drifted from his youthful, church-backed activism to become a pragmatic politician and the president with a terrorist “kill list.” The meeting this week is a potential point of confluence.

Mr. Obama's organizing job was paid for by a church grant, and he spent his first months in Chicago surrounded by Catholic pastors and congregations.


A White House accustomed to archbishop antagonists hopes the president will find a strategic ally and kindred spirit in a pope who preaches a gospel of social justice and inclusion. Mr. Obama’s old friends in the priesthood pray that Francis will discover a president freed from concerns about re-election and willing to rededicate himself to the vulnerable.

But the Vatican — aware that Mr. Obama has far more to gain from the encounter than the pope does, and wary of being used for American political consumption — warns that this will hardly be like the 1982 meeting at which President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II agreed to fight Communism in Eastern Europe.

“We’re not in the old days of the great alliance,” said a senior Vatican official who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the mind-set inside the Holy See. While Mr. Obama’s early work with the church is “not on the radar screen,” the official said, his recent arguments with American bishops over issues of religious freedom are: Catholic leaders have objected to a provision in the administration’s health care law that requires employers to cover contraception costs, and have sharply questioned the morality of the administration’s use of drones to fight terrorism.

As in many reunions, expectations, and the possibility for disappointment, run high.

Working in Holy Rosary Church, Mr. Obama would sneak smoking breaks on the roof with the Rev. William Stenzel.

A Fast Learner

In 1967, as the modernizing changes of the Second Vatican Council began to transform the Catholic world, Ann Dunham, Mr. Obama’s mother, took her chubby 6-year-old son occasionally to Mass and enrolled him in a new Catholic elementary school in Jakarta, Indonesia, called Santo Fransiskus Asisi. At school, the future president began and ended his days with prayer. At home, his mother read him the Bible with an anthropologist’s eye.

Pious he was not. “When it came time to pray, I would pretend to close my eyes, then peek around the room,” Mr. Obama wrote in his memoir “Dreams From My Father.” “Nothing happened. No angels descended. Just a parched old nun and 30 brown children, muttering words.”

In 1969, Mr. Obama transferred to a more exclusive, state-run school with a mosque, but a development in the United States would have a greater impact on his future career. American Catholic bishops responded to the call of the Second Vatican Council to focus on the poor by creating what is now known as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an antipoverty and social justice program that became one of the country’s most influential supporters of grass-roots groups.

Mr. Obama had a small office on the ground floor of the church.


By the early 1980s, when Mr. Obama was an undergraduate at Columbia University, the campaign was financing a project to help neighborhoods after the collapse of the steel mills near Chicago. The program’s leaders, eager to expand beyond Catholic parishes to the black Protestant churches where more of the affected community worshiped, sought an African-American for the task. In 1985, they found one in Mr. Obama, a fledgling community organizer in New York who answered a want ad for a job with the Developing Communities Project. The faith-based program aimed to unify South Side residents against unsafe streets, poor living conditions and political neglect. Mr. Obama’s salary was less than $10,000 a year.

The future president arrived in Chicago with little knowledge of Catholicism other than the Graham Greene novels and “Confessions” of St. Augustine he had read during a period of spiritual exploration at Columbia. But he fit seamlessly into a 1980s Catholic cityscape forged by the spirit of Vatican II, the influence of liberation theology and the progressivism of Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago, who called for a “consistent ethic of life” that wove life and social justice into a “seamless garment.”

On one of his first days on the job, Mr. Obama heard Cardinal Bernardin speak at an economic development meeting. He felt like a Catholic novice there, he wrote in his memoir, and later decided “not to ask what a catechism was.” But he was a quick study.

“He had to do a power analysis of each Catholic church,” said one of his mentors at the time, Gregory Galluzzo, a former Jesuit priest and disciple of the organizer Saul Alinsky. Mr. Obama, Mr. Galluzzo said, soon understood the chain of command and who had influence in individual parishes.

Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin


Mr. Obama had a small office with two cloudy glass-block windows on the ground floor of Holy Rosary, a handsome red brick parish on the South Side, where he would pop down the hall to the office of the Rev. William Stenzel, raise a phantom cigarette to his lips and ask, “Want to go out for lunch?” Besides sneaking smoke breaks with the priest on the roof, Mr. Obama listened to him during Mass. “He was on an exposure curve to organized religion,” Father Stenzel said.

The future president’s education included evangelizing. Mr. Obama often plotted strategy with the recent Catholic convert who had hired him, Gerald Kellman, about how to bring people into the program and closer to the church. The effort to fill the pews “was what Bernardin really bought into,” Mr. Kellman said.

To expand congregations as well as the reach of his organizing program, Mr. Obama went to Holy Ghost Catholic Church in South Holland, Ill., to ask Wilton D. Gregory, an African-American bishop and a rising star in the hierarchy, for a grant for operating costs. Archbishop Gregory, who now leads the Archdiocese of Atlanta, recalled Mr. Obama as a persuasive man who “wanted to engage the people of the neighborhood.” He recommended that Cardinal Bernardin release the funds.

As the months went on, Mr. Obama became a familiar face in South Side black parishes. At Holy Angels Church, considered a center of black Catholic life, he talked to the pastor and the pastor’s adopted son about finding families willing to adopt troubled children. At Our Lady of the Gardens, he attended peace and black history Masses and conferred with the Rev. Dominic Carmon on programs to battle unemployment and violence. At the neo-Gothic St. Sabina, he struck up a friendship with the Rev. Michael L. Pfleger, the firebrand white pastor of one of the city’s largest black parishes. The two would huddle in a back room and commiserate about the liquor stores and payday loan businesses in the neighborhood.

Cardinal Francis George


But even as Mr. Obama effectively proselytized for the church and its role in improving the community, and even as he opened meetings in the backs of churches with the Lord’s Prayer and showed a comfort with faith that put the people he hoped to organize at ease, Catholic doctrine did not tempt him. He was not baptized Catholic, priests said. But it was amid the trappings of Catholicism, according to his fellow organizers, that the future president began to express a spiritual thirst.

As Mr. Obama helped expand the program from Catholic parishes to megachurches and Protestant congregations, he felt that need slaked by the prevailing black liberation theology, inspired by the civil rights movement and preached by African-American ministers like Mr. Wright of Trinity. The notion that Jesus delivered salvation to communities that expressed faith through good deeds suited Mr. Obama’s instincts — and perhaps his interests.

For an ambitious black politician, Mr. Galluzzo said, “it was not politically advantageous to be in a Catholic church.”
Mr. Obama nevertheless maintained his Catholic connections, so much so that when he turned up in the basement of the Holy Name complex in 1987, “there was a need to clarify” that he was not a member of the flock, said the Rev. David Jones, who was at the meeting. And some members still tried to draw him in, in more ways than one.

Cynthia Norris, then the director of the Chicago Archdiocese’s black Catholics office, wrote Mr. Obama a Harvard Law School recommendation, and kept in touch during a trip to Europe in 1988.

“He was a man of integrity, very much to my disappointment,” joked Cynthia Norris, then the director of the Chicago Archdiocese’s black Catholics office, who found the young Mr. Obama appealing. The future president, who was dating another woman, did turn to Ms. Norris for a Harvard Law School recommendation, and kept in touch during a trip to Europe in 1988.

“I wander around Paris, the most beautiful, alluring, maddening city I’ve ever seen; one is tempted to chuck the whole organizing/political business and be a painter” on the banks of the Seine, Mr. Obama scribbled to Ms. Norris, along with “Love, Barack,” on one side of a postcard. On the other was a picture of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.

A Partnership Falters

Mr. Obama entered Harvard in 1988, the same year he was baptized at Trinity, the power church of Chicago’s black professional class. Trinity served Mr. Obama well through his dizzying political ascent, which coincided with a period in which black Catholic churches in Chicago closed and the hierarchy shifted away from the progressive social engagement that had characterized Mr. Obama’s early years here.

Mr. Obama sent a postcard to Ms. Norris when he visited Paris in the summer of 1988.

In 1997, the year Mr. Obama was sworn in as an Illinois state senator, Cardinal Francis George succeeded Cardinal Bernardin as archbishop of Chicago. One of the church’s leading conservative intellectuals, called “Francis the Corrector” by local liberal priests, Cardinal George was emblematic of the bishops installed by John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI. Some of them looked with skepticism at the social justice wing that had financed Mr. Obama’s organizing efforts, and later sought to block his election as president by suggesting that Catholics could not in good conscience vote for a candidate who supported abortion rights.

Mr. Obama still won the Catholic vote in 2008. In his campaign, he had held out the goal of finding common ground between supporters and opponents of abortion rights, chiefly by reducing unintended pregnancies and increasing adoptions. Cardinal George quickly dashed those hopes. “The common good can never be adequately incarnated in any society when those waiting to be born can be legally killed at choice,” he said in November 2008 in his opening address as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Mr. Obama, seeking to avoid confrontation with the church, invited Cardinal George to the White House in March 2009; said at a news conference that April that abortion rights were “not my highest legislative priority”; and told graduates at the University of Notre Dame in May, after some initial boos from the crowd, that Cardinal Bernardin had touched “my heart and mind.” He recalled his years in Chicago’s Catholic parishes and said that after branching out to work with other Christian denominations, “I found myself drawn not just to the work with the church; I was drawn to be in the church.”

Two months later, speaking to reporters from Catholic publications, he said again that the Campaign for Human Development and Cardinal Bernardin had inspired him. “I think that there have been times over the last decade or two where that more holistic tradition feels like it’s gotten buried under the abortion debate,” he said.

Church leaders were unimpressed. A week after his session with Catholic reporters, Mr. Obama met with Benedict, who pointedly offered him a Vatican document on bioethics that condemned abortion and stem cell research. The relationship deteriorated further during Mr. Obama’s push for health care reform, specifically the provision on contraception, which will be argued before the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Still, Mr. Obama had not lost all his friends in the church. As the president’s relations with Catholic leaders reached their nadir, Father Stenzel, Mr. Obama’s old smoke-break friend, visited the White House. As they walked into the Oval Office, Mr. Obama joked to his staff that the priest had given him his first office in Chicago. Father Stenzel reminded him that his old surroundings were far humbler: “The office I gave you had two rows of glass-block windows!”

Pope Francis’ Impression

Mr. Obama’s parish days seemed far behind him when he won re-election in 2012 with a slimmer margin of Catholic votes. Not only did Catholic conservatives view him as a secularist forcing them to pay for contraceptives, but some of his old allies in the church’s left wing criticized his use of drones and lack of emphasis on the poor.

But the election of Pope Francis last March seemed to breathe new life into the Catholic Church and, potentially, into the relationship between Mr. Obama and the institution that gave him his start. While far from an ideological progressive, Francis does sometimes appear cloaked in Cardinal Bernardin’s “seamless garment.” His de-emphasis of issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and his championing of the poor and vulnerable — articulated in his mission statement, “The Joy of the Gospel” — have impressed a second-term president who argues that income inequality undermines human dignity.

“Whether you call that the ‘seamless garment’ or ‘the joy of the Gospel’ or what, I’ve said to the president I consider that a pretty Catholic way of looking at the world,” said Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, who is Roman Catholic. Mr. McDonough added that the community-organizer-turned-president had expressed admiration to him about “how important it is for the Holy Father to be so in the community.”

Last month, Catholic activists made their case for social justice on Capitol Hill. Afterward, relaxing over beers and a buffet in the Russell Senate Office Building, they discussed whether Cardinal George, who is retiring as archbishop of Chicago, would be replaced by Archbishop Gregory, who helped secure Mr. Obama’s church grant application in the 1980s. Among them was Mr. Lyke, the man who had received coaching from Mr. Obama years earlier in the basement of Holy Name Cathedral. He characterized Francis and Mr. Obama as a match made in heaven.

Mr. Lyke’s view is not universal. Vatican officials have made clear Mr. Obama will not get special treatment, and leaders of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, also gathered in the Russell Building, saw the coming papal audience as a chance for Mr. Obama to return to the church’s social justice values, not the other way around.

Dylan Corbett, one of the Campaign for Human Development leaders, said the president was “welcome to the conversation” that the pope was driving about income inequality and poverty. He added with a grin, “We’re happy to have him back, actually.”


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