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The Catholic roots of Obama’s activism

CHICAGO – In a meeting room under Holy Name Cathedral, a rapt group of black 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 such as empowering lay leaders and attracting more believers.

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

By the time of that session in spring 1987, Obama – himself not Catholic – was 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.

On Thursday, 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 Obama as an abortion-supporting enemy. Obama 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.

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. 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 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. While Obama’s early work with the church is “not on the radar screen,” the official said, his recent arguments with American bishops 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.

Leaders of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, see the coming papal audience as a chance for 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.