Is Obama losing the Catholic vote?

A few observers are starting to wonder:

Some rank and file Catholics are beginning to express the same frustrations as clergy about a new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services policy requiring all employers, including religious ones, to pay for FDA-approved contraceptives, such as the birth control pill and Plan B, through health insurance plans. Churches are exempt but hospitals and schools with religious affiliations must comply. The new policy goes into effect August 1, 2012, but religious groups who oppose contraception have been given a yearlong extension to enforce the policy.

“What’s offensive is that we’re being told, our Catholic institutions which serve this nation well, are being told you who find these things offensive, you should pay for them, in fact you must pay for them,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, told CNN.

Catholic teaching opposes the use of contraceptives.  Wuerl acknowledged the clergy and the faithful have been at odds over the teachings on contraceptive use. But on this policy he said both are in lockstep over what is being perceived as a violation of religious liberties.

“This time around what people are seeing this isn’t a question of one moral teaching or another, it’s being able to teach at all. Our freedom, and everyone has a stake in freedom in this country, and I think that’s why this resonates across the board,” he said.

Wuerl is calling his congregants to action, asking them to call congress and the White House to express their displeasure.

“We’re beginning to say to our people this is what the issue is, it’s wrong, we’ve never experienced this in the history of our country before, this is a violation of the basic rights of conscience and religious liberty. So you need to know that and you need to speak up,” he said.

The timing of the administration’s announcement has drawn criticism for being tone deaf, coming just three days before tens of thousands of protesters, many of them Catholics who oppose abortion rights, came to Washington for the annual March for Life on the anniversary of Roe vs Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide.

“In my estimation it’s a huge misstep politically,” said Stephen Schneck a political scientist from Catholic University who has consulted with the administration on Catholic issues. In 2009, Schneck also worked with pro-abortion rights Democrats in Congress on the president’s signature health care reform measure to find language that ensured government funds did not pay for abortions.

“The way in which the narrative is being developed is that the administration is at odds with the Catholic Church fundamentally. What I’m seeing in the pews is something of a waking up, a Catholic solidarity. That I think could very well carry over into their political activities” Schneck said. “There’s nothing like having a sense of opposition to you to rally the troops and I suspect that’s going to happen here.”

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Meantime, Politico has its own spin:

President Barack Obama and his senior aides were more than a little concerned before he announced his controversial decision requiring Catholic hospitals and universities to provide contraception in employee health plans.

Obama — in recognition of the issue’s sensitivity to the church — picked up the phone to personally break the news to two influential Catholic leaders: New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Sister Carol Keehan, head of the largest Catholic health association in the country and a pivotal supporter of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The president’s tone was polite but not contrite, a person briefed on the calls told POLITICO: He explained that while his health care law exempted Catholic churches from the requirement, he wouldn’t carve out other Catholic institutions even though the Vatican views artificial birth control as contrary to the will of God.

Aides say Obama’s move, which has sparked thunderous denunciations as he prepares to address the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday, was motivated by personal conviction and his long-held belief that all health plans need to provide birth control to women.

But the January decision was also a hard-headed election-year calculation with acute political risks — a bow to the concerns of womens’ rights groups that could alienate white Catholics, many of them critical independent voters in battleground states.

The handling of the issue offers a hint of Obama’s approach to governing and campaigning in 2012: When confronted with a position close to his heart — and dear to the base — Obama is increasingly inclined to side with people who will vote for him even if it means enraging those who might, but probably won’t, vote for him.

“Who are we going to really lose over this? Ron Paul voters?” asked a senior aide to a Senate Democrat, who thinks the administration should have handled the situation more quietly by punting a decision until after Election Day. “Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. … Catholics who don’t believe in condoms aren’t going to vote for Barack Obama anyway. Let’s get real.”

Added Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), an abortion-rights advocate who supports the provision: “I don’t think people’s minds will be changed by this debate. As for the president, leadership can’t take the election year off.”

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