The American Catholic backlash against the administration’s treatment of contraceptive services in the new health care law continues to grow, threatening President Obama’s support among a key group of swing voters that was critical to his victory in 2008.
In the 11 days since the Health and Human Services Department announced its new policy, the administration has been condemned even by progressive Catholic leaders and, remarkably, denounced from the pulpit in thousands of Catholic churches across the country and by bishops representing more than 100 dioceses. At issue are the regulations released Jan. 20 that require women’s contraceptive services to be covered by insurance policies under the president’s Affordable Care Act. The church had sought a broad exemption for the many Catholic institutions in the country to recognize its canonical opposition to artificial birth control. Instead, HHS excluded only “religious employers” that primarily employ members of their own faith communities. This narrow exception protects those who work directly for Catholic churches, but not the many Catholic universities, hospitals, or social-service agencies such as Catholic Charities.
The explosion of anger from American church leaders was immediate. On Sunday, bishops in at least 125 of the 195 dioceses in the country had letters of protest read from the pulpit at all Masses. Four bishops – in Phoenix; Cincinnati; Green Bay, Wis.; and Lubbock, Texas – warned of civil disobedience. “We cannot – we will not comply with this unjust law. People of faith cannot be made second-class citizens,” said the letter from Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix.
No bishop was swayed by the fact that the administration is giving religious communities a year to figure out how to comply. New York Bishop Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, dismissed this, saying, “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.” Dolan, a cardinal-designate who will receive his red cap at a ceremony in the Vatican later this month, added, “To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their health care is literally unconscionable.”
Dolan is a conservative. But he had met with the president in November and left the meeting optimistic that the ruling would not be so unfriendly to the church. Just as dismayed were liberal Catholics who had rallied behind Obama in 2008 and defended him when he was honored at University of Notre Dame in 2009 despite his advocacy of abortion rights. They believed he understood Catholic sensitivities and appreciated the good works done by Catholic-affiliated agencies. But as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who often writes from the progressive Catholic perspective, wrote this week, the president “utterly botched” the decision, adding, “Obama threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus.”
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed Dionne’s criticism as “a political observation,” contrasting it with what he called “a policy based on the merits.” The administration, he said, “believes that this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious beliefs and increasing access to important preventive services.” He promised to “continue to work closely with religious groups during this transitional period to discuss their concerns.”
He added, “I also would just note that our robust partnerships with the Catholic Church and other communities of faith will continue. The administration has provided over $2 billion to Catholic organizations over the past three years in addition to numerous nonfinancial partnerships that promote healthy communities and serve the common good.” Carney would not be drawn into an argument with the bishops; nor would he comment on those bishops who have threatened civil disobedience. “We understand that not everyone agrees with it,” he said. “All I can tell you is it was made after very careful consideration based on the need to balance those two issues.”
But there is a political warning in the bishops’ protests. It is not that American Catholics march in lockstep behind the bishops. Quite the contrary. Most American Catholics already disregard church teachings against birth control. And the church hierarchy has probably never been held in lower regard by American Catholics angry at attempted cover-ups of sexual crimes and resentful whenever priests try to tell them how to vote. But this is not like 2004 when it was just a handful of conservative prelates threatening to deny Communion to Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic. This time, it is the majority of bishops. And this time, it is the church fighting back against Washington telling it what it must do with its own employees.
The numbers contain the political warnings. Fifty-five of the bishops represent dioceses in what will be battleground states in the election – seven from Michigan; six each from Florida and Pennsylvania; five each from Ohio and Wisconsin; three from Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, Arizona, and Colorado.
Additionally, the clout of the Catholic vote is unquestioned. Since 1972, only once has a candidate won the presidency despite losing the Catholic vote, according to network exit polls. That lone exception was 2000 when Democrat Al Gore won 50 percent of Catholics but lost in the Electoral College to Republican George W. Bush, who got 47 percent of Catholics. If Hispanic Catholics are excluded and only white Catholics counted, the winning streak is unbroken: From 1972 to 2008, the candidate who got the most votes from white Catholics won the election.
In 2008, Obama trailed Republican John McCain among all Catholics for most of the campaign, but made a late surge to overtake him. Gallup showed him winning Catholics 53 to 47 percent. The media exit polls had him winning 54 to 45 percent.
The political clout is enhanced by the reality that the battleground states often have the highest concentrations of Catholics. In 2010, there were 77.7 million American Catholics, 25 percent of the population. And Catholics are the big swing vote in the key political states. In 2008 numbers compiled by the Official Catholic Directory, Catholics made up 41 percent in New Jersey, 32 percent in Nevada, 30 percent in Illinois and Wisconsin, 28 percent in Pennsylvania, 25 percent in New Mexico, 24 percent in New Hampshire, 22 percent in Michigan, 21 percent in Minnesota, 18 percent in Ohio, 17 percent in Iowa, and 13 percent in Missouri and Florida.