Obama and U.S. Catholics: A Complicated Relationship

Pope Francis speaks with President Obama during a private audience on March 27, 2014 at the Vatican.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Sept. 13, 2015, 8 p.m.

When Pres­id­ent Obama wel­comes Pope Fran­cis to the White House next week, nobody will be watch­ing more closely than the na­tion’s 79 mil­lion Cath­ol­ics, most of whom ad­mire and re­spect their re­li­gious lead­er but have a much more con­flic­ted view of their polit­ic­al lead­er.

Twice, they voted for Obama, but not by big mar­gins. Sev­er­al times, their in­sti­tu­tions have sued him, but not with great suc­cess. And all this while their bish­ops have al­tern­ated between strong de­nun­ci­ations of parts of his health care law and en­thu­si­ast­ic en­dorse­ments of his im­mig­ra­tion and Ir­an policies. “Obama has largely been per­ceived as someone who has not been a friend of the Cath­ol­ic Church in Amer­ica,” said Chad C. Pecknold, who teaches in the School of Theo­logy and Re­li­gious Stud­ies at The Cath­ol­ic Uni­versity. The re­la­tion­ship, he told Na­tion­al Journ­al, is “com­plic­ated.”

But the pres­id­ent ap­pears to have found an ally in Fran­cis.

Be­hind the scenes, the two lead­ers worked to­geth­er to end the five-dec­ade es­trange­ment between the United States and Cuba. The pres­id­ent has wel­comed the pope’s em­phas­is on fight­ing poverty and his de-em­phas­is of ec­cle­si­ast­ic­al scold­ing on so­cial and sexu­al mat­ters. Obama also cheered Fran­cis’s en­cyc­lic­al de­clar­ing that cli­mate change is mostly man-made. “I think when he meets with the pres­id­ent, I ex­pect there to be a warm per­son­al ex­change and that it will be viewed as an ex­change between per­sons who like each oth­er,” said Pecknold.

That kind of big-pic­ture bon­homie and dip­lo­mat­ic nicety al­most cer­tainly will dom­in­ate the ses­sions Wed­nes­day when Fran­cis be­comes the third pope to vis­it the White House. No one ex­pects the pope to go in­to the de­tails of the many is­sues that have the U.S. Cath­ol­ic bish­ops at odds with the ad­min­is­tra­tion. But nev­er far from any dis­cus­sion between Obama and U.S. Cath­ol­ics is the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices man­date in the Af­ford­able Care Act that re­quires health in­sur­ance plans to provide cov­er­age for con­tra­cept­ives, in­clud­ing some abor­ti­fa­cients such as the “day-after pill.”

The Cath­ol­ic hier­archy felt it was misled by the White House in­to be­liev­ing some ex­emp­tion could be giv­en Cath­ol­ic in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing hos­pit­als, schools, and Cath­ol­ic Char­it­ies. Car­din­al Timothy Dolan of New York, who had been work­ing with the White House, stated that the bish­ops could have been the “biggest cheer­lead­ers” for Obama­care had the ex­emp­tions been gran­ted. In­stead, they are among the biggest crit­ics, of­ten go­ing to court to avoid the man­date.

“We see the Little Sis­ters of the Poor versus the U.S. gov­ern­ment,” said Pecknold. “We see these stor­ies which look like the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been very heavy-handed with the Church, not in­ter­ested in provid­ing ex­emp­tions it is quite happy to give to busi­nesses but not to the Church. … It has been the agenda of this pres­id­ent to push a total ac­cept­ance of the HHS con­tra­cept­ive man­date on cel­ib­ate nuns. It just doesn’t look good for Obama.”

Today, Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ings pale next to the pope’s. In June, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter broke his ap­prov­al num­bers down by groups. Obama had an ap­prov­al rat­ing of 47 per­cent among white Cath­ol­ics com­pared to 42 per­cent among whites over­all. He also en­joyed a 74 per­cent ap­prov­al from His­pan­ic Cath­ol­ics. In con­trast, Fran­cis is ex­ceed­ingly pop­u­lar in the United States—even after suf­fer­ing a drop in his num­bers when many con­ser­vat­ives pro­tested his cli­mate-change en­cyc­lic­al. A Quin­nipi­ac Poll taken Aug. 20-25 showed that 66 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans have either a fa­vor­able or very fa­vor­able view of the pope. That poll showed 87 per­cent of Cath­ol­ics and 61 per­cent of Prot­est­ants ap­prov­ing.

The fight over the man­date was ra­ging in 2012 even as the pres­id­ent was ap­peal­ing for Cath­ol­ic votes in key states like Ohio, Col­or­ado, Wis­con­sin, and Flor­ida. But for the fifth time in the last six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, the can­did­ate who won the Cath­ol­ic vote won the elec­tion. (The only ex­cep­tion was 2000 when Al Gore won the Cath­ol­ic vote but lost in the Elect­or­al Col­lege.) On Elec­tion Day 2012, Obama saw a slight drop in his share of the Cath­ol­ic vote from his first elec­tion in 2008. He re­ceived 50 per­cent of the Cath­ol­ic vote, down four points from 2008. Among white Cath­ol­ics, he suffered a sev­en-point drop, get­ting only 40 per­cent of the vote com­pared to 47 per­cent four years earli­er. That was still a bet­ter show­ing than Obama en­joyed from white voters over­all, at only 39 per­cent. From His­pan­ic Cath­ol­ics, the pres­id­ent re­ceived 75 per­cent, up three points from 2008.

Even with those strong num­bers, 2012 is viewed as a po­ten­tial turn­ing point in the re­la­tion­ship between Cath­ol­ics and the Demo­crat­ic Party. Be­fore 2012, there had been a fray­ing of the ties between Cath­ol­ics and the party that most of their par­ents and grand­par­ents auto­mat­ic­ally aligned with. But for some, the party’s con­ven­tion in Char­lotte was par­tic­u­larly un­set­tling, with what seemed to be a nightly parade of sup­port­ers of abor­tion rights, gay mar­riage, and the HHS man­date. Even worse was the em­bar­rass­ing dis­pute when the plat­form writers stripped the phrase “God-giv­en” out of the plat­form, for­cing a pub­lic de­bate on wheth­er to re­store God to the party.

When some on the floor loudly booed the vote on God, it was too much for some Demo­crats. Bish­op Thomas To­bin of the dio­cese of Provid­ence in Rhode Is­land, spoke for them when he an­nounced he was drop­ping his long­time re­gis­tra­tion as a Demo­crat and be­com­ing a Re­pub­lic­an. “I just can’t be as­so­ci­ated struc­tur­ally with that group, in terms of abor­tion and NARAL and Planned Par­ent­hood and the same-sex mar­riage and the cul­tur­al de­struc­tion I saw go­ing on,” he said, adding, “The a-ha mo­ment for me was the 2012 Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion. … It was just aw­ful.”

Jay W. Richards, who teaches at the School of Busi­ness and Eco­nom­ics at The Cath­ol­ic Uni­versity, said what many re­membered from Char­lotte was “that boo­ing of God.” But, he ad­ded, “It was really over the course of the con­ven­tion you re­mem­ber the ro­bust de­fense of abor­tion rights. I really think it was the cul­min­a­tion of the Af­ford­able Care Act and lack of ac­com­mod­a­tion on these pro­vi­sions on abor­ti­fa­cient drugs. … For the pres­id­ent, surely he could come up with an ex­cep­tion for this. But he dug in his heels and he made it very dif­fi­cult for a prac­ti­cing Cath­ol­ic.”

Luck­ily for Obama and the Demo­crats, many Amer­ic­an Cath­ol­ics do not really prac­tice what the Church preaches on mat­ters of birth con­trol, ho­mo­sexu­al­ity, and abor­tion. For Cath­ol­ics who em­phas­ize acts of char­ity and fight­ing poverty, Obama has dis­tinct ap­peal. And Fran­cis is the pope they have been wait­ing for.

The pres­id­ent re­ferred to this when he ad­dressed the Cath­ol­ic-Evan­gel­ic­al Lead­er­ship Sum­mit on Over­com­ing Poverty at Geor­getown Uni­versity in May. Not­ing that his first job in Chica­go was for a Cath­ol­ic so­cial-justice or­gan­iz­a­tion, with his of­fice in a Cath­ol­ic church, Obama said fight­ing poverty should be cent­ral to any min­istry. “When it comes to … what’s the thing that is really go­ing to cap­ture the es­sence of who we are as Chris­ti­ans or as Cath­ol­ics or what have you, … this is of­ten­times viewed as a ‘nice to have’ re­l­at­ive to an is­sue like abor­tion.”

In­stead, he said re­li­gious lead­ers have to fo­cus on ac­tions in the com­munity. “Nobody has shown that bet­ter than Pope Fran­cis, who I think has been trans­form­at­ive just through the sin­cer­ity and in­sist­ence that he’s had that this is vi­tal to who we are, this is vi­tal to fol­low­ing what Je­sus Christ, our Sa­vior, talked about,” said Obama. That, he said, is why Fran­cis has “such in­cred­ible ap­peal” to young people. “And,” Obama con­cluded, “I hope that is a mes­sage that every­body re­ceives when he comes to vis­it here. I can’t wait to host him be­cause I think it will help to spark an even broad­er con­ver­sa­tion.”

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