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Catholics meet Obama team, discuss policy

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Representatives of 15 Catholic organizations met with President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team yesterday in Washington.

The Catholic groups presented members of the transition team with a list of policy concerns in the areas of international development and trade, health care reform, immigration, domestic policy and poverty reduction, and the environment.

The presentations and policy discussion that followed were based on “Platform for the Common Good,” a consensus document that came from a convention the groups hosted this summer in Philadelphia called the “Convention for the Common Good.”

The Catholic groups gave the transition team copies of the document, which, they say, advocates policies that are “enlivened by the Gospel message of hope and the wisdom of Catholic social teaching.” A copy of the document is available at www.votethecommongood.com.

Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a group that describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization formed to promote awareness of Catholic social teaching, and Network, a national Catholic social justice organization, organized the Catholic groups that sent representatives to the meeting. (See also New groups add broader Catholic views to politics.)

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The meeting lasted about an hour and 15 minutes.

The purpose of the meeting, according to Sr. Simone Campbell, director of Network, was 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.

The Obama team is trying to create a climate of collaboration among various interest groups in Washington, Campbell said. She thinks their concern is not just to look for allies to advance their policies but also to be in touch with groups who are in touch with their constituencies.

Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, told NCR it is important to note that the group, which she described as “national Catholic social justice leaders,” spoke as a movement.

“We have our individual priorities and different groups take leadership on different issues, but it is important to note that … we were there as a resurgent common good movement in the public square,” she said.

Kathy McNeely of the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns said the Obama transition team told the groups that their concerns “would definitely be channeled to the people working on specific policies.” But she also said “they were very careful about that, saying that policy people are in a listening mode right now.”

Until Obama is president, they said, talking about ideas and seeking advice was OK, but now was not the time to set policy, according to McNeely.

But McNeely said the overall impression was that “they would like to seek our advice in the future, definitely.”

“They both encouraged us [to come to them with advice] and suggested people who might be good people to work with in the administration and to bring our ideas and platforms and recommendations to them.”

Campbell said that Michael Strautmanis, the director of public liaison and intergovernmental affairs, told them that the Obama team sees Catholic groups as “not just service delivery folks” but as valuable sources of experience. “They want to benefit from the experience of Catholic groups, on-the-ground experience,” she said.

Different representatives of the Catholic groups spoke about specifics of the five concerns they brought to the meeting. Kristen Sampson, Coordinator of the Global Women’s Project for the Washington-based Center of Concern, spoke about international development.

“A consistent, and not pre-planned, theme in each of these brief presentations was concern for the poor and oppressed,” Sampson told NCR in an e-mail about the meeting.

Kelley said, “Catholics United and other groups presented on the need to come together to prevent the tragedy of abortion — to really work on abortion reduction and to really prevent this tragedy.”

“Obama had talked about that [during the campaign], and a number of pro-life Catholics heard that,” so the group needs to hold the new administration accountable on this issue, she said.

Asked which side had initiated the meeting, Campbell said, “We wanted the meeting. They wanted the meeting.”

She said the transition team was clear in that they valued the ideas Catholic groups had to offer, but they stressed that this was one meeting among many similar meetings on a wide variety of topics and issues.

“They have an agenda and we have our agenda,” she said. “So while we are friends, we have different agendas and we are trying to find a place of synchronicity. It is a challenge.”

Then she added: “It’s an exciting time. To think that the concerns of the poor have a chance to be heard. What a great Christmas gift.”

Policy specifics

McNeely said that in terms of international policy, the Catholic groups’ message was that now is a real opportunity for the United States to change from a military response to problems around the world, to more diplomatic and multilateral approaches.

“When they responded there was some indication that they saw some possibility [for a change in apporach].” Iran having nuclear capacity was cited as an example. “They found that this brings up an opportunity to discuss with the world all the concerns about nuclear weapons and disarmament,” McNeely said.

In terms of international development, concerns were raised that U.S. engagement had blurred the lines between military exercises and development work. “They said their military advisors were saying that they wanted to see separation between the military forces of the U.S. and development work,” McNeely said. “We found that very uplifting and good to hear because there is some confusion in parts of the world … where there seems to be a lot of lines crossed.”

Anne Boyle, director of communications for the Sisters of Mercy, spoke for the group on immigration reform. “We would like to see legislation that includes a pathway to lawful permanent residence or citizenship, meets immigrants’ basic needs and encourages family unity/reunification,” she told NCR in an e-mail.

Responding to her, she said, Strautmanis “said the American people need to have some faith in our borders,” but “we need to change the conversation from one that demonizes immigrants to one that helps the American people understand their situation and moves our country toward welcoming and treating people more humanely.”

Campbell said that Strautmanis compared the demonization of immigrants to what felons feel after they have been released from prison. Their sentences have been served, but they have not been reintegrated into society, he said.

Second-chance programs for felons are a priority issue for Network, and Campbell was a bit surprised and excited to have the idea of such programs mentioned even tangentially at such a discussion. “To have it even acknowledged, and at that level, was striking. What a wonderful thing,” she said.

On poverty issues, the Catholic groups advocated finding alternative funding for the Housing Trust Fund. Signed into law this summer, the fund aims to protect and maintain a stable supply of low-income housing. The trust was to have been funded from profits from the Federal National Mortgage Association, or Fannie Mae, and the Federal Home Mortgage Corporation, or Freddie Mac, which are now nearly defunct.

The group also advocated extending benefits to welfare recipients beyond the five-year limits, which were mandated by welfare reform of the 1990s.

Kelley said that for the economic stimulus package that will be a major focus of the Obama administration in its first weeks, the Catholic groups pushed the idea of including values from the corporal works of mercy.

“Housing assistance, children’s health, food stamp increases — these kinds of poverty- reduction pieces. We talk about them as including the corporal works of mercy, shelter for the homeless, care of the sick, food for the hungry, clear commitment to those values,” Kelley said.

“We’ve had these bailouts and now poor people are really hurting, the middle-income people too. That’s just a push we have around the stimulus package — making sure it’s really helping people who are in poverty and jobless,” she said.

Attending the meeting from the Obama transition team were Strautmanis; Mara Vanderslice, who is in charge of faith outreach in the public liaison and intergovernmental affairs office; Lisa Ellman senior transition staff to Melody Barnes, the director-designate of the presidential Domestic Policy Council; Joshua Dubois, the Obama campaign’s director of faith outreach; and Mark Linton, Catholic Outreach Coordinator for the campaign.

The Catholic groups represented include: Catholics United, Pax Christi USA, Network, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the Jesuit Conference, School of the Americas Watch, Franciscan Action Network, Sisters of Mercy, Africa Faith and Justice Network, the Center of Concern, Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

(Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is dcoday@ncronline.org.)

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