The Magazine

Obamacare vs. the Catholics

The administration’s breach of faith.

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The reason for this optimism was that more than a few important Catholics had previously climbed out on a high branch for Obama politically, and for his health care reform as a matter of policy. Despite what you may read in the New York Times, most lay Catholics are nominally at home in the Democratic party. (Remember that a majority of Catholics voted for Obama in 2008.) And what is true of the laity goes double for those in religious life. In 2009, Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins welcomed President Obama as the school’s commencement speaker in the face of a heated student protest. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops mostly kept its powder dry during the fight over Obamacare, and very few members of the church hierarchy actively, or even tacitly, opposed the bill. Others, such as Sister Carol Keehan, the president of the Catholic Health Association, actually lobbied in favor of it, early and often. So most Catholics took the president at his word when he met with Archbishop Timothy Dolan last fall and assured him that when the final version of the policy was eventually released, any fears would be allayed.

That was their mistake. Obama telephoned Dolan on the morning of January 20 to inform him that the only concession he intended to offer in the final policy was to extend the deadline for conformity to August 2013. Every other aspect of the policy enunciated by Sebelius would remain rigidly in place.

It’s unclear whether Obama anticipated the blowback which resulted from this announcement, or perhaps even welcomed the fight. The liberal Catholic establishment nearly exploded. Sister Keehan was so horrified she threw her lot in with the more conservative Dolan in full-throated opposition to Obama. Cardinal Roger Mahony, the spectacularly liberal archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles, wrote, “I cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience.  .  .  . This decision must be fought against with all the energies the Catholic community can muster.” Michael Sean Winters, the National Catholic Reporter’s leftist lion, penned a 1,800-word cri de coeur titled “J’accuse!” in which he declared that, as God was his witness, he would never again vote for Obama. The editors of the Jesuit magazine America denounced a “wrong decision,” while the Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne called the policy “unconscionable.” When you’ve lost even E.J. and the Jesuits, you’ve lost the church.

The reason liberal Catholics were so wounded is twofold. First, this isn’t a religio-cultural fight over Latin in the Mass or Gregorian chant. The subjects of contraception, abortion, and sterilization are not ornamental aspects of the Catholic faith; they flow from the Church’s central teachings about the dignity of the human person. Second, Obama has left Catholic organizations a very narrow set of options. (1) They may truckle to the government’s mandate, in violation of their beliefs. (2) They may cease providing health insurance to their employees altogether, though this would incur significant financial penalties under Obamacare. (The church seems unlikely to obtain any of Nancy Pelosi’s golden waivers.) Or (3) they may simply shut down. There is precedent for this final option. In 2006, Boston’s Catholic Charities closed its adoption service​—​one of the most successful in the nation​—​after Massachusetts law required that the organization must place children in same-sex households.

Which means that what is actually on the block are precisely the kind of social-justice services​—​education, health care, and aid to the needy​—​that liberal Catholics believe to be the most vital works of the church. For conservative Catholics, Obama merely confirmed their darkest suspicions; for liberals, it was a betrayal in full.

As a matter of law, this decision by Obama’s health care bureaucrats seems unlikely to survive. Last month, the Supreme Court struck down another attempt by the administration to bully religious believers in the Hosanna-Tabor case. In that instance, Obama’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission argued that a religious organization does not have the right to control its hiring and firing according to its religious belief. The Court struck down this argument 9-0 in a rebuke so embarrassing that Justice Elena Kagan came close to openly mocking her successor as Obama’s solicitor general during oral arguments. It was the kind of sweeping decision that should have deterred the Obama administration from forcing Catholics into complying with the health insurance mandate, because it suggested that the Court will very likely side against the administration once this matter comes before it. Presidents typically dislike being overturned unanimously by the High Court.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers