The current discontent concerning President Obama’s ham-handed decision to force Catholic hospitals, schools, and charities to provide birth control and abortion pills for their employees has generated enough heat and light to scorch the entire USA this chilly February. Many prominent Catholic figures across the entire spectrum of the chattering classes including Patrick J. Buchanan, Peggy Noonan, E.J. Dionne, Chris Matthews, Mark Shields, and Maggie Gallagher have expressed dismay at the declaration, with the Democrats among them clearly most worried about the effect that this contretemps will have on Obama’s re-election chances. The emerging consensus holds that Obama’s attack on Catholicism will, as Peggy Noonan argued in the Wall Street Journal, unite the Catholic Left and the Catholic Right in the face of a common enemy. Yet, the Catholics who serenely expect a reinvigorated congregation as a result of this controversy may be sadly disappointed in the end.
When trying to assess the effect this tempest will have on Obama’s re-election chances, it is imperative that we observe the high wire act, complete with double talk, employed by liberal Catholics when trying to spin Obama’s decision. Some politicians like Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and practicing Catholic, resort to mouthing platitudes about the decision being both a step forward for women’s health and a means of reducing abortion, although McCaskill has only just now decided that reducing abortion might be a good thing. Some other liberal Catholics and liberal Catholic organizations, like the universities, have sought to avoid difficulties by declining public comment on the issue.
Most of the major organs of the mainstream media are attempting to frame this issue as an example of Catholic hypocrisy by stating, as did the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 10th, that, “It’s believed that 99 percent of women, and 98 percent of Catholic women who are sexually active have used contraception”, although the newspaper does not divulge the source of these figures. The same paper went on to quote a study saying that over 50% of Catholics believe that employers should be required to offer health plans including birth control coverage, and that all people agree that prescription contraception coverage is “too expensive”. Certainly, the major metropolitan daily newspapers can be counted on to rail at perceived Catholic inconsistency on this issue, and to invent, out of thin air, the statistics that would offer their contentions a trifle of credibility.
Where, though, are the liberal Catholic themselves? Contrary to Peggy Noonan and Maggie Gallagher’s earnest hopes they are not deserting Obama in droves; on the contrary many on the Catholic Left have stayed with Obama on this issue, and some who felt compelled to speak out have now returned to the fold after the White House attempted to tiptoe back out of the minefield last week.
Who are these liberal Catholics who cannot see the forest because of the trees? They are groups like the Catholic Health Association, which called the new regulations a “jolt” but now says they are pleased with the Administration’s willingness to engage in “dialogue” on the issue. Catholics For Choice, a pro-abortion lobby, strongly supports the Administration and has taken out ads in most of the major newspapers in support of the policy. Catholics In Public Life, an organization of Catholic public office holders, likewise supports the new initiative. As one moves farther leftward toward the lunatic fringe we find organizations like Pax Christi, and WomenPriests standing firmly with the Obama forces on the new policy. A quick tour of liberal Catholic websites shows a mix of prudent silence, circular reasoning, and guarded approval of the Obama initiative in generally equal measure.
What does the current unpleasantness mean for the Catholic vote and Obama’s re-election prospects? Despite the misinformation of the media, Catholics have usually supported the Democrats, regardless of ideology. Obama won the Catholic vote in 2008 by a wider margin than he won in nationwide balloting. True, George W. Bush edged John Kerr out among Catholics in 2004, but Kerry, while he claimed to be a Catholic, supported no official church positions. Before the Bush-Kerry squeaker, the last time a Republican candidate captured the Catholic vote was back in 1984, the year of the Reagan re-election landslide, and as everyone (even the liberal historians) now understands, Ronald Reagan was no ordinary politician. In total, the Democrats have won the Catholic vote in five of the last six elections. Many of the Catholic voters are prodigal sons who flirt with the GOP, but usually come home to the Democrats at the moment of truth. The Catholic Left, for their own part, vote nearly universally Democratic, and there is no reason to suppose that they will jump ship in November.
Sadly, certain liberal Catholic groups are not jumping on the protest bandwagon concerning the new contraception rules. Predictability, some support the new rules, and they support Obama, too. The big question for all Catholic voters is now quite simple: Will the faithful remember this brazen insult in November, or will Catholic voters support a candidate who has sucker-punched them, once again?