WASHINGTON -- In 2009, Notre Dame University set off months of intra-Catholic controversy by inviting a champion of abortion rights to deliver its commencement address. When the day arrived, President Obama skillfully deflated the tension. He extended a "presumption of good faith" to his pro-life opponents. Then he promised Catholics that their pro-life convictions would be respected by his administration. "Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion," he said, "and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women."
Catholics, eager for reassurance from a leader whom 54 percent had supported, were duly reassured. But Obama's statement had the awkward subordinate clauses of a contentious speechwriting process. Qualifications and code words produced a pledge that pledged little.
Now the conscience protections of Catholics are under assault, particularly by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). And Obama's Catholic strategy is in shambles.
Shortly before Obama spoke at Notre Dame, the ACLU of Massachusetts brought suit against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), seeking to eliminate a grant to their programs helping victims of human trafficking. Because Catholic programs don't refer for abortions, the ACLU alleged that public support amounts to the establishment of religion.
The Obama Justice Department defended the USCCB grant in court. But last month, HHS abruptly ended the funding. It did not matter that an independent review board had rated the bishops' program more effective than those of its competitors -- or that career HHS employees objected to the politicized handling of the grant. HHS announced it was giving preference to grantees that offer "the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care." This was described by one official as "standard procedure." So it is now standard procedure in the Obama administration to deny funding to some Catholic programs based solely on their pro-life beliefs.
The process that produced the HHS decision remains murky. The USCCB has filed a Freedom of Information Act request requesting more details. But it is difficult to imagine that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was not involved in a matter of this much obvious controversy. Sebelius -- an outspoken pro-choice Catholic -- has a long history of conflict with Catholic authorities.