Who is Denis McDonough?

January 25th, 2013

I met Denis McDonough in 2005 when I was working at Catholics In Alliance for the Common Good. John Kerry had just lost the presidential election and Catholic Democrats in the Senate were conducting the post mortem on what happened.

Denis helped set up a meeting between our team and key chiefs of staff and legislative directors on the Hill. I remember walking to the metro after the meeting with him and I was surprised that he knew the names of the homeless individuals living in the area. Not only did he give them the change in his pocket, but he connected with them on a very personal level. He recognized their dignity.

At that moment, I knew Denis was my kind of Catholic.

And as a testament to Denis' Catholic bona fides, he's one of 11 children, his sister is or was a Catholic Worker in Minnesota and his brother was once the Vicar of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

So when I learned that this hard working and unassuming staffer was selected as Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff for the National Security Council, I knew Obama was making a great selection. Denis’ Minnesota values and his Catholic education at St. John's University would be a welcome improvement over the disastrous tenure of the Bush Administration. (When Denis retires from government, the first question I want to ask him over a beer is what the President’s drone policy has done to his spiritual well being.)

In my encounters with Denis over the last seven years, here are the values that I see in him. Denis McDonough is one of the hardest working and most committed individuals I’ve met in Washington DC. He’s someone who’s willing to open doors for others. He has connected social justice Catholics with the proper decision-makers in the White House. He’s worked with up and coming policy experts at his time at CAP. He’s looked out for the personal well being of staffers on the Obama campaign trail and he’s gone out of his way to make sure social justice Catholics had a voice in the White House.

A recent example was his November meeting with the School of the America’s Watch, a good organization working to limit American militarism in Latin America. Despite being on the opposite end of the policy question, Denis met with the organizers of the campaign and committed to help them in areas where they could find common ground. For example, when he learned that the school was not disclosing the names of the soldiers who received ‘human rights’ trainings, Denis committed to help make the institution as transparent as possible.

And more recently, in 2012, Denis did his best to iron out the tenuous relationship between the Catholic bishops and the Obama Administration over the HHS contraceptive mandate. When the White House realized that the original rule did not provide as much sensitivity as possible for religious organizations that were being compelled to offer medical services contrary to their religious beliefs, Denis helped make sure a third party fix, otherwise known as the accommodation, was the official White House policy. To help matters even further, Denis went out of his way to give a key policy address on the administration's commitment to religious liberty both at home and abroad at Catholic University this past Summer. The speech was widely praised by Catholic bishops and policy experts.

In 2013, as the bishops and the administration negotiate the final rule making relating to self insurance pools, Denis will be a great position to make sure women have access to health care while simultaneously doing as little as possible to infringe on the religious identity of Catholic institutions.

Good luck Denis! Our prayers are with you!

James Salt is the executive director at Catholics United.