When you're Right you're Right. And When you're Wrong, you're Wrong
President Obama is wrong on this one. He's going to lose a lot of the Catholic vote on this issue. Forcing Catholic institutions to pay for contraception, etc., that we, in principle, cannot pay for.... not good politics. Nor is it right and just.
- Peace, Fr. Rick
When Barack Obama secured his party's nomination for president in 2008, one group of Democrats had special reason to cheer.
These were Democrats who were reliably liberal on policy but horrified by the party's sometimes knee-jerk animosity to faith. The low point may have been the 1992 Democratic convention. There the liberal but pro-life governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey Sr., was humiliated when he was denied a speaking slot while a pro-choice Republican activist from his home state was allowed.
With Mr. Obama, all this looked to be in the past. In 2006, the Illinois senator delivered a speech declaring that "secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square." He followed up by appearing at fund-raisers for the anti-abortion Bob Casey Jr. during Mr. Casey's successful run for Sen. Rick Santorum's senate seat.
Sen. Casey went on to co-chair Mr. Obama's National Catholic Advisory Council. Sixteen years after the snub to his dad, he was given a prime-time speaking slot at the 2008 Democratic convention. And Mr. Obama would go on to capture a majority of the Catholic vote.
Now, suddenly, we have headlines about the president's "war on the Catholic Church." Mostly they stem from a Health and Human Services mandate that forces every employer to provide employees with health coverage that not only covers birth control and sterilization, but makes them free. Predictably, the move has drawn fire from the Catholic bishops.
Less predictable—and far more interesting—has been the heat from the Catholic left, including many who have in the past given the president vital cover. In a post for the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winter minces few words. Under the headline "J'ACCUSE," he rightly takes the president to the woodshed for the politics of the decision, for the substance, and for how "shamefully" it treats "those Catholics who went out on a limb" for him.
The message Mr. Obama is sending, says Mr. Winters, is "that there is no room in this great country of ours for the institutions our Church has built over the years to be Catholic in ways that are important to us."
Mr. Winters is not alone. The liberal Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles, blogged that he "cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience"—and he urged people to fight it. Another liberal favorite, Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., has raised the specter of "civil disobedience" and vowed that he will drop coverage for diocesan workers rather than comply. They are joined in their expressions of discontent by the leaders of Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities, which alone employs 70,000 people.
In the run-up to the ruling, the president of Notre Dame, the Rev. John Jenkins, suggested a modest compromise by which the president could have avoided most of this strife. That would have been by allowing the traditional exemption for religious organizations. That's the same understanding two of the president's own appointees to the Supreme Court just reaffirmed in a 9-0 ruling that recognized a faith-based school's First Amendment right to choose its own ministers without government interference, regardless of antidiscrimination law.
A few years ago Father Jenkins took enormous grief when he invited President Obama to speak at a Notre Dame commencement; now Father Jenkins finds himself publicly disapproving of an "unnecessary government intervention" that puts many organizations such as his in an "untenable position."
Here's just part of what he means by "untenable": Were Notre Dame to drop coverage for its 5,229 employees, the HHS penalty alone would amount to $10 million each year.
The irony, of course, is that the ruling is being imposed by a Catholic Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, working in an administration with a Catholic vice president, Joe Biden. A few years back the voluble Mr. Biden famously threatened to "shove my rosary beads" down the throat of those who dared suggest that his party's positions on social issues put it at odds with people of faith. Does he now mean to include Mr. Winters, Cardinal Mahony and Father Jenkins?
Catholic liberals appreciate that this HHS decision is more than a return to the hostility that sent so many Catholic Democrats fleeing to the Republican Party these past few decades. They understand that if left to stand, this ruling threatens the religious institutions closest to their hearts—those serving Americans in need, such as hospitals, soup kitchens and immigrant services.
Conservatives may enjoy the problems this creates for Mr. Obama this election year. Still, for those who care about issues such as life and marriage and religious liberty that so roil our body politic, we ought to wish Catholic progressives well in their intra-liberal fight. For we shall never arrive at the consensus we hope for if we allow our politics to be divided between a party of faith and a party of animosity to faith.
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