Cokie Roberts, Catholic Woman in the Public Square

Cokie Roberts, political commentator for ABC News, has stood for more than four decades as a prominent Catholic woman in the public. From 1996-2002 she and Sam Donaldson co-anchored the weekly ABC interview program This Week. Roberts also serves as Senior News Analyst for National Public Radio. She has won countless awards, including three Emmys, has been inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame, and was cited by the American Women in Radio and Television as one of the fifty greatest women in the history of broadcasting.

She was interviewed by America on her experience as a Catholic woman in the public square.

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Roberts and her husband, Steven V. Roberts, write a weekly column syndicated in newspapers around the country by United Media. They also are contributing editors to USA Weekend Magazine, and in 2011 they published Our Haggadah, Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families. Their earlier collaboration, From this Day Forward, an account of their more than 40-year marriage and other marriages in U.S. history, immediately went onto The New York Times bestseller list. All of Cokie Roberts’s books also have been best-sellers, including We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters, an account of women’s roles and relationships throughout U.S. history. Her other bestselling books, Founding Mothers, published in 2004, and Ladies of Liberty, in 2008, are histories of women in America’s founding era.

Roberts holds more than 25 honorary degrees, serves on the boards of several non-profit institutions and was on President George W. Bush’s Commission on Service and Civic Participation. In 2008 the Library of Congress named her a “Living Legend,” one of very few Americans to have attained that honor. She is the mother of two and grandmother of six.

1. You come from a prominent Catholic family. Your mom was ambassador to the Vatican but also an ardent Democrat. How has the family squared with Democratic positions on some life and family issues, such as abortion, birth control and same sex marriage? What kind of tensions has this meant for you?

It’s an interesting balancing act in all kinds of ways to try to convince people that I am a fair-minded journalistic observer while coming from a family that has been strongly identified for many decades both politically and religiously. From a political perspective, it’s actually quite funny how often I am identified as Republican or conservative, except of course by Republicans and conservatives. Perhaps that does come from the fact that as I have, ahem, moved into a different stage of life and a different role from a daily journalist. I have made clear my continuing commitment to Catholicism (as opposed to many who say, “I was raised Catholic.”) and people just assume from there. But in terms of the bigger question about the Democratic Party and Catholicism, clearly one can be a pro-life Democrat in the same way that one can be a pro-choice Republican. And I think it would be a terrible mistake for the Catholic Church in America to be firmly associated with one party. Among other things, if that happens, it means the other party pays no attention to you, and what’s the mileage in that?

2. Your interfaith marriage to Steve Roberts, who is Jewish, has also drawn attention. How have you balanced both faith traditions in your family? How have you passed on your Catholic faith to your children and grandchildren? What special efforts have you made to pass on Catholicism to your children and grandchildren?

Steve and I met when we were 18 and 19 years old in an America where a mixed marriage was between someone of Irish extraction and someone of Italian extraction. That wasn’t as true for me in the New Orleans centuries-long, multi culture but it certainly was for my Catholic friends in the North and it was especially true for Steve growing up in ethnically divided Bayonne, New Jersey. When we were dating there were many times along the way when we despaired of ever making it comfortable enough for everyone we loved for us to be able to share a future. But since the prospect of not sharing that future was unimaginable to us, we spent a great deal of time at a very young age talking it through. Our now middle-aged children were raised with a deep understanding and appreciation for both religions, which is really not hard for the Catholic member of a couple since so much of Christianity springs from Judaism. And knowledge of Jewish traditions makes Catholicism far more understandable. The person who has to be generous in these marriages is the Jewish partner who doesn’t accept Christianity as a religion but can, if willing, lovingly embrace what Jesus did with His Jewishness. And Steve has always done that.

3. You have had at least two significant deaths in your life recently, your mother Ambassador Lindy Boggs and your brother Tom, a major lobbyist in Washington. How has your faith come into play as you cope with their deaths?

There is no way I could get through the blows of the last year without my faith. It’s not just my mother and brother; Steve’s twin also dropped dead along with several other members of our family and close friends. It’s been a very trying time. But I think even harder times came when I was younger and not as prepared for life’s blows. My father disappeared in an airplane, never to be found, while I was still in my 20s and my sister, whom I loved dearly, died of cancer at age 51. Because of my own faith, and because of my faith community, especially my mother and the Sacred Heart nuns, I was able to get through those times while still caring for others in the way they deserve.

4. How have the following helped form your faith? The church of New Orleans? Education by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart? Your family? Others?

My sister used to say that we were always taught that God had given us life and as a New Orleans Catholic you were taught that the best way to please someone who has presented you with a gift is to enjoy it. New Orleans Catholicism then, and I hope still is, was all about joy. God loves you. Enjoy it. Love other people. Bring them joy through your actions. My parents firmly believed that every single human being is made in the image and likeness of God. They treated every person totally equally. I always joked with my mother that she treated the queen of England and the person who cleaned the bathrooms exactly the same and she had met them both. That sense of the fundamental holiness of people permeated their politics as well as their personhood. That understanding is the greatest gift they gave us as children. I remember one day at the ground-breaking for the John Paul II Center in Washington where out of the goodness of my heart I had agreed to serve as MC. An officious priest came up and extremely rudely told me to move away from where I was. When I explained my role he curtly offered a word of apology saying, “I didn’t know who you were.” When I asked him why he would address anyone in such a manner, regardless of who they were, he was dumbfounded. I guess he took something different away from the catechism than my family did. Also, there is no way to talk about my faith absent the Society of the Sacred Heart. The women who were my teachers and remain my dear friends mean the world to me. They took girls seriously in the 1950s—a radical notion, so there was never any “grown-up” need to reject them, only to thank them—and they keep the faith. I hang in there in tough times when the men in the hierarchy are really getting me down in large part in solidarity with them.

5. In the course of your media career, have you seen the relationship between church and state change on the practical level? Some say relations have been particularly difficult under President Obama. Do you agree? If you do, are the faults on one side or both?

Well, the relationship between church and state always has its tensions, as it should. Clearly, we are in a very different place politically from where we were when John F. Kennedy went before the ministers in Texas. Now candidates are asked whether they are born again and judged accordingly. (No one seems to remember that Baptism is the born again experience, but never mind.) But it’s also true that I firmly understand the Constitutional fact that the wall of separation is a one-way wall. The government cannot encroach on religion. Religious institutions can and should have a voice in the public square. But to the extent they want tax exemptions, or federal funds, they have to pay attention to the law. It doesn’t really seem all that complicated to me. And no, of course it’s not worse with Obama. I’d like to introduce the people who think so to most of our earlier presidents, especially in most of the 19th Century.

6. What do you think about the bishops’ concerns for religious liberty? Are they reality-based? How do you think lay Catholics are reacting to the bishops’ initiatives on religious liberty?

They are reality based in terms of the bishops’ reality, or at least what they saw as their reality until Pope Francis. But do I think anyone in the parishes is paying attention? Certainly not. People in the parishes aren’t paying attention to much of what comes down from on high on this earth, just what’s coming down from on High. Do I think the bishops are in danger of sounding even more irrelevant as they pursue that line of political attack? Sure. But here’s where there’s hope that the pope might make a difference. I do think it’s important always to hold government accountable and make sure politicians and bureaucrats understand the ramifications of what they are doing for and to people of all faiths. And I think there have been some stupid decisions around the Affordable Care Act on both sides. I think the bishops’ conference, however, has to be careful not to look like an adjunct of the Republican Party. But that perception goes back as far as at least Kennedy’s days.

7. How have developments in media technology affected our communications? Do you find people less charitable? Do you see any effects from fewer editors, more people’s access to media, for example?

The media question in terms of how it affects media is a long and complicated one. But I don’t think that the technology has made people less charitable, unless you have data on that. My perception is just the opposite. People can now text in contributions in the face of disasters, etc. On the non-profits where I serve, the technology has been extremely helpful in getting the story out and getting the response in.  

8. In the world of media, have you seen coverage of the church by mainstream media change? Have media been harder on the church? Not hard enough?

Well, I think Pope Francis is being treated like a rock star. And that was true of John Paul II when his papacy began. And the media, for the most part, take the church seriously. There are always complaints about coverage of scandal versus all the good things that go on, but that is true in every field. It is not news that thousands of planes take off and land safely; the one crash is news. But for the American Catholic Church, unfortunately, the question of media coverage cannot be separated from the sex abuse scandal. I have personally been involved in several media-outreach efforts by the hierarchy on this and the tin-ear and fundamental ignorance about molestation in the early years of the unfolding scandal was truly shocking. There was only one Christian response: This is a crime. We are horrified. What can we do as caring people to help? How can we make amends and prove to you it will never, never happen again? That’s not what anyone heard. Finally, we are hearing those responses after hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements. That’s money that could have gone to educate poor children, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, help pregnant young women see the way clear to give birth to their babies. You get my furious drift. And equally maddening: it caused the bishops to lose their moral authority at a time when it could really be used on those issues.

9. As a woman in media, have you found prejudice against you? As a Catholic woman? As a woman of a certain age?

Of course. I don’t think I’ve been discriminated against officially as a Catholic woman. But certainly sex and age. Let me count the ways. And when I say officially, I mean no one has denied me a job or a raise. But are there people in this society still who think that to be a believer is to be a little bit simpleminded? Sure. And to be a Catholic, still a little simpler still? Yes.

10. Do you find people have particular expectations of you because you are Catholic?

Well, certainly all of the Catholic organizations do. But most of them do such great work that I’m happy to help out. I guess there’s an assumption that I say things because the church does and that somewhat irritates me. There seems to be recognition that I can think for myself on most issues but when it comes to life issues, I must have the views I have because “the priests told me to.” Really?

11. How has the sexual abuse by clergy scandal personally affected your feelings as a Catholic toward the bishops, clergy in general and your identification as Catholic? Have you seen any improvement in the bishops’ dealing with this scandal?

See question 8. Of course it has had an impact on my attitudes toward the bishops who covered up for criminals and made it possible for them to continue committing their crimes. Yes, there has been improvement, but there was only one way to go.

12. How are you reacting to the “Francis Effect”? Do you think Pope Francis will succeed in his attempts at making the church once again meaningful to those who have largely given up on it?

It was so exciting to be in Rome for the election of Francis and it has remained exciting ever since. I just worry for his life. I’m awfully glad he’s living at Santa Marta. In terms of his success, since this is a Jesuit magazine, I will just go with Teilhard de Chardin—and rely on the theological virtue of hope.

Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is a member of the Northeast Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and U.S. Church Correspondent for America.

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