WH Chief of Staff: Obama Is the Most Catholic President in History

December 15, 2016

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough told David Axelrod on his podcast "The Axe Files" on Wednesday that President Obama is the most Catholic president in U.S. history during a conversation on faith and politics.

Axelrod, who formerly served as Obama's senior adviser in the White House, told McDonough that the president often talked about being raised in a spiritual tradition versus a religious tradition and that he later adopted his faith when he was older living in Chicago.

"Look, I say to him, Axe, and I think I've said this to him in your presence and I've said this publicly before, I think this is our most Catholic of presidents," McDonough said. "And I mean that by capital 'C' Catholic in what I see and what he does everyday."

"It's not to say that he does everything entirely consistent with Catholic teaching," McDonough said. "That's not the idea, but I think in fact his view of the person and our role and the view of us as adding to the common good is an undeniably Catholic set of premises, and that's why I say that to him a lot."

Obama has been staunchly pro-choice on the issue of abortion, which conflicts with the Catholic Church's teachings. His signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act, faced strong resistance from the country's Roman Catholic bishops because it requires religious organizations to provide insurance with free birth control, which also goes against church doctrine. The president often relied on Catholic members of the administration like Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in rallying support for Obamacare, the New York Times previously reported.

Mr. Obama's initial decision that religious institutions would have to pay the cost of birth control for their employees shocked even his Catholic allies. Sister Keehan, who eventually supported Mr. Obama's compromise, said the fact that Mr. Biden and Ms. Sebelius are Catholics with longstanding church relationships was critical in the negotiations.

"They had such credibility and such familiarity with various Catholic groups," Sister Keehan said. "What could have become colossal misperceptions of each other's positions were quickly averted."

When Mr. Obama was fighting to pass the Affordable Care Act early in his first term, it often fell to Mr. Biden and Ms. Sebelius to rally support among nuns and Catholic nurses, even as bishops across the country opposed the legislation.

Other prominent Catholics in the Obama administration like Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, and Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, have also developed strong bonds with the nuns and Catholic relief agencies on issues like immigration. Those connections have helped the administration to compensate, in part, for what has often been a contentious relationship with church elders.