Here Comes Everybody? Don’t Bet on It

According to an old aphorism, a little anti-Semitism is good for Jews. Since the Obama administration announced the guidelines for its Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a new consensus has emerged that a little anti-Catholicism is good for Catholics. On its blog, the USCCB proudly declares “a true ‘here comes everybody’ moment,” and dsplays the growing list of Catholic commentators who have condemned the president.

Everybody — or at least everybody who’s part of everybody — seems awfully eager to point out that this new consensus is non-partisan, or at least bi-partisan. Some commentators are all but predicting an end to partisanship, period. With evident surprise, the Bishops’ Conference blog reports, “National Catholic Reporter has even excoriated the administration over [HHS conscience exemption rules] and has said some supportive things about the bishops.”

In a way, I guess, this is remarkable. Some NCR columnists, like Eugene Cullen Kennedy and Fr. Richard McBrien, come down on bishops so routinely, you’d think they smash their chess sets and storm out of the room whenever the original Oceans 11 comes on TV. But anyone who thinks everyone is going to remain in formation for long is in for a rude awakening.

Reading through the various protests against the administration’s policy, you’ll notice drastic tonal differences. Fr. John Jenkins, CSC, the Notre Dame rector who braved flack for bestowing an honorary doctorate on Obama, confesses feeling “deeply disappointed,” and calls for “a national dialogue among religious groups, government and the American people to reaffirm our country’s historic respect for freedom of conscience and defense of religious liberty.” Compare that to the Passionate Papist’s prediction: “I think it is quite possible that Catholics in this country will one day be arrested for simply proclaiming the teachings of the Church.” To some Catholics, this is a regrettable overreach that can be resolved with some common sense; to others, it’s the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.

Suggesting that these differences follow party lines would be premature, since I don’t know which party, if any, the Passionate Papist belongs to. Still, ours is a two-party system, and this is an election year. Barring an abrupt reversal on Obama’s part, freedom of conscience, as observers are now calling the issue at stake, would tend to favor his Republican challenger. NCR’s Michael Sean Winters sees the elephant in the room with perfect clarity. Even while announcing he can’t “in good conscience, ever vote for Mr. Obama again,” he disavows any intention to “go rushing into the arms of a waiting GOP.”

Winters never says exactly what he plans to do with his vote. For all we know, he may stay out of the booth altogether. Though I admire his integrity, the times seem not to favor it. If Obama’s narrow conscience exemptions look radical, the Right is pushing just as hard in the opposite direction. Republican hopeful Rick Santorum and former opponent Michele Bachmann both signed The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence on Marriage and Family. Items in the declaration include: “Support for prompt reform of uneconomic, anti-marriage aspects of welfare policy, tax policy, and marital/divorce law”; and “Humane protection of women and the innocent fruit of conjugal intimacy…from human trafficking, sexual slavery, seduction into promiscuity…and other types of coercion or stolen innocence.” The language is as ominous as it is vague — when did “innocence,” in the sense of “sexual inexperience,” become part of our legal vocabulary?

Granted, Mitt Romney, the current Republican front-runner, pointedly refused to sign the document. (His spokeswoman called it “inappropriate” and “undignified.”) But the voters who supported those who did will make up a sizable part of his constituency. In the meantime, Romney’s heaving hard a-starboard on other fronts. Last Tuesday night, he told Soledad O’Brien, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Though Romney did concede, “It’s not good to be poor,” and promised, “if [the safety net] has holes in it, I will repair them,” he insisted, “My focus is on middle-income Americans.” Even the Weekly Standard called his remarks “stunningly stupid.”

The Weekly Standard may be a little hard on Romney. Over the past few decades, the political climate has grown increasingly hostile toward any sign of moderation. James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, reports that the percentage of lawmakers who qualify as “centrist” has fallen from “around 30″ in the 1970s to between 5 and 8 today. According to Mickey Edwards, a Republican representative from Oklahoma, re-districting and the 24-hour news cycle have created an environment where “It’s a lot harder to compromise … and compromise is seen as a bad thing to do.” When you’re competing in that kind of market, disavowing concern for the very poor represents nothing but good sense.

So far left versus far right is no longer a false dilemma; it’s a very real dilemma. Though the dismay among Catholics over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act may seem universal now, I have a hard time believing it’ll last till election day, or even until the Republican National Convention. It helps that those of us loath to pledge support to the GOP, whatever the reason, have an out in the Supreme Court. In National Review Online, Ed Whelan points out HHS’s regulations are incompatible with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Thanks to good old-fashioned checks and balances, the creeping totalitarianism everyone’s seeing can creep only so far. Obama might still qualify as the lesser of two evils.

If two viable choices continue to exist come November, so much the better for the Church. The whole notion of “here comes everybody” is overrated, anyway. I’m more inclined to agree with Patton that if everybody’s thinking alike, then somebody’s not thinking.

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