Losing credibility with Catholics

In 2008, Catholics voted for President Obama over Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) by a 9-point margin (54 percent to 45 percent), a turnaround from 2004, when Catholics supported former President George W. Bush over Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by a 5-point margin (52 percent to 47 percent). I would posit that most of the Catholic Obama voters were progressive Catholics both politically and theologically. Many of these voters believe passionately in the social gospel of the church, in its mission and mandate to help the poor and vulnerable. 

These Catholic Obama supporters felt duped when Obama’s administration promulgated the Health and Human Services rule that failed to exempt Catholic organizations such as hospitals, schools and charitable groups from a requirement to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees. On Feb. 10, the president backed away from this serious error of judgment, but he has nonetheless jeopardized his credibility with a number of the Catholics who helped elect him. 

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What Obama needs to know about practicing Catholics is that, while they might have misgivings about their church’s prohibition on the use of birth control within the bonds of marriage, these voters consider themselves unapologetically and unabashedly Catholic. They bristle at comments that they are somehow “cafeteria Catholics” when they want to engage in a spirited debate among believers about the wisdom of this and other church teachings. They also bristle at non-Catholic critics who attack and often belittle the church’s positions, refusing to acknowledge that its adherents have a constitutional right to freely practice their faith, both with respect to the social teachings that secular liberals applaud and the moral teachings that they reject. 

The media repeatedly cites the claim that the vast majority of Catholics (anywhere between 67 percent and 98 percent) disagree at some level with the Catholic Church’s teaching on birth control. The mistake the administration made was to assume that forcing Catholic institutions to provide contraception to their employees would not be opposed by those “enlightened” Catholics. Those assumptions were dead wrong. 

The committed religious sisters, brothers, priests and laypeople who run and work in Catholic charitable institutions often stand in the crossfire between two opposing camps that have radically different positions on the definition of “women’s healthcare.” Each side of the cultural debate believes in its agendas with the passion of biblical prophets who warn of Armageddon for those who dare oppose them. 

The civil rights and women’s groups, viewing healthcare through the lens of an uncompromising autonomy and individualism, believe that women’s healthcare includes contraception, abortion and sterilization. They believe that women should have unfettered access to these services, and that decisions about such services should remain between the woman and her doctor. The ultimate goal of these groups is to mainstream these services so that they are not viewed differently from any other health service provided to a vulnerable individual. Anyone who disagrees is a vestige of the Dark Ages and “just doesn’t get it.” 

The United States Catholic Conference, viewing healthcare through the lens of the dignity of every human life, believes that the provision of healthcare is a means of serving those at their most vulnerable. Catholic teaching on human sexuality is one of the threads of the seamless garment of life that undergirds the church’s views on healthcare. Sexuality is viewed as a sacred gift worthy of great respect because it enables human beings to be co-creators of life — a contraceptive mentality irresponsibly separates sex from the creation of life. The church views this contraceptive ethic as leading to the widespread coarsening of respect for human life. Thus contraception, abortion and sterilization are seen as completely antithetical to healthcare. Anyone who disagrees just doesn’t appreciate the value of human life. 

What the administration continually fails to appreciate is that Catholics who practice their faith in hospitals, schools and social service agencies understand and apply the theological rationale of the church outlined above. They might not agree with the church’s application of its theology to a particular practice, like contraception within marriage, but they passionately believe that the church and its affiliated organizations should be free from governmental restraint to treat patients, educate students and empower the poor in a manner consistent with the seamless garment of life. 

The contentious debate over what services constitute “women’s healthcare” is undoubtedly important, but it is not necessarily the motivating factor for the priests, sisters and laypeople actually delivering Catholic social services every day. They have an incredible commitment to service and simply want to be free to carry out the social ministry of the church, being true to both the church’s social and moral teachings. 

This commitment to religious freedom and to the seamless garment of life unites conservative and progressive Catholics — woe to the politician who attempts to divide them.

Leibold is the former general counsel of the Catholic Health Association of the United States.