By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
The most important Roman Catholic figure in preparing the president for his first meeting today with Pope Benedict XVI—and in reaching out to the American Catholic community in advance of the visit—is someone whom few Catholics would recognize.
His name is Mark Linton, and though his official title is director of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he doubles as the White House's top liaison to the Catholic world. "Mark has access all the way up the chain of command at the White House and has delivered a great level of access," says a Catholic social justice activist who requested anonymity.
In advance of this morning's meeting between Obama and the pope, Linton's duties ranged from mapping out Benedict's thinking on key issues for Obama to determining the gift that the president presented to the pope. Linton enlisted Catholic theologians and church experts from around the country to help with the job.
"I wanted them to understand the nature of the pope's thought, especially because Obama has written on hope and so has Benedict," says Vincent J. Miller, a University of Dayton theologian debriefed by Linton this week. "One area we talked a lot about is Benedict's concern with truth, which translates . . . to something that is similar to Obama's interest in a reconceived politics that face issues deeply, in long, detailed speeches."
Many of Linton's phone calls to American Catholic leaders this week focused on how the president could use an encyclical that Pope Benedict released Tuesday, revolving largely around the global economic crisis, to launch a discussion of common goals.
"The encyclical ramped up the level of White House enthusiasm for this meeting because you can't read it without sensing that these two men are seeing economic questions the same way," says a Catholic adviser to the White House who spoke on background. "The Holy Father's emphasis on putting the human person at the center of the economy strongly echoes themes that Obama campaigned on and is working to implement."
Other theologians whom Linton talked to this week stressed the need to be prepared for the pope to bring up areas of disagreement with Obama on social issues like abortion and embryonic stem cell research. "I'm very confident that the White House was prepared to talk about that," said Stephen Schneck, director of the Catholic University of America's Life Cycle Institute, who spoke with Linton earlier this week.
Shneck said the White House was prepared to promote what it has called a "common ground" approach to reduce the need for abortion without restricting abortion rights.
A former employee of Catholic Relief Services, Linton worked as a legislative assistant in Obama's Senate office before moving over to Obama's presidential campaign to head up Catholic outreach in 2008.
Linton's conversations included brainstorming sessions about possible gifts from the president to Benedict. Obama presented the pope with a stole from the enshrined body of John Neumann, an influential 19th-century American bishop.
Linton has also been key to earlier White House decisions affecting Catholics, including the recent appointment of Miguel Diaz as ambassador to the Vatican. The nomination was a surprise because Diaz is a Catholic theologian who is largely unknown in the political world. His conservative record on abortion avoided inciting the kind of opposition that would have accompanied the appointment of a pro-abortion-rights Catholic Democrat.
"Linton was more responsible than anyone for Diaz's appointment," says a Catholic activist close to the White House.
Linton declined to comment.