He won the presidency by capturing slightly over half of the Catholic vote. He probably can’t count on that in the next election.

Back when he went to Notre Dame to deliver the commencement address, George Weigel made the prescient point that Obama walked into the Catholic divide and declared which side was authentic.

What was surprising, and ought to be disturbing to anyone who cares about religious freedom in these United States, was the president’s decision to insert himself into the ongoing Catholic debate over the boundaries of Catholic identity and the applicability of settled Catholic conviction in the public square. Obama did this by suggesting, not altogether subtly, who the real Catholics in America are.

He’s trying that again now, same methods perhaps expecting the same results. So he must have been surprised recently when it backfired in his mangling of the HHS mandate “accommodation” pathetically put forward in a press conference from the White House as a compromise to the US Bishops and Catholics and religious groups acting in solidarity to protect religious liberty.

The administration “shifted” on nothing. It simply decreed that insurers, not employers, must provide “preventive services” (including sterilization and abortifacient drugs), a shell game that has been variously and accurately described as a “fraud” (Andrew McCarthy, in the Corner) and an “absurdity” (the Wall Street Journal). More to the point, as Yuval Levin pointed out shortly after President Obama and HHS Secretary Sebelius announced their “accommodation,” the newly tweaked regulations “would not actually change the moral circumstances at issue in any way.”

So, Weigel says, Obama continues trying to divide and conquer Catholics, and in doing so, he’s misreading them.

Everyone understands, for example, that Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks for the Church in the United States in a singular way, especially when he speaks for a united bishops’ conference on matters of first principles.

Everyone, that is, but the Obama White House.

In his appearance on Fox News Sunday on February 12, White House chief of staff Jack Lew discussed with host Chris Wallace what the administration was determined to sell as an “accommodation” to Catholic concerns, an “accommodation” that tweaked an HHS mandate requiring that all health insurance provide no-co-pay abortifacients, sterilizations, and contraceptives. Lew tried, unsuccessfully, to shore up the administration’s pretense that something in the moral calculus of the original mandate had changed with the administration’s “accommodation” — which, of course, it hadn’t. What was truly striking about the administration spin, however, was Lew’s suggestion that the Catholic Health Association (whose president, Sister Carol Keehan, had quickly and publicly applauded the administration’s “accommodation”) trumped the bishops’ conference when it came to who-speaks-for-the-Catholic-Church-in-America.

It’s not going over well, except for Sr. Keehan and another high profile Catholic or two. That escaped no one’s notice paying close attention to this unprecedented challenge to people of faith.

[Obama’s] brief statement was meant to get a hot story off the media front burners (a qualified success) and to telegraph to progressives that he wanted them back in the fold.

To that end, the White House seemed to have conferred not with the concerned Bishops but with members of the “Catholic Left” whose criticism of his original plans had had a weighty effect on others, and whose progressive credentials made their alliance vital to retain; he effectively went to Sr. Carol Keehan, President of the Catholic Health Association, and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, and sought imprimaturs that were not theirs to give, on what the press has taken to call (in apparent ignorance of the word’s meaning) his “compromise.”

Even before the president spoke, Keehan’s approving statement was released through the White Houses own press portals, with Dionne’s endorsement swiftly following. The one-two punch of Keehan and Dionne was meant to knock out the Bishops before they’d had a chance to find their mouth guards or rise from their corners, and also to signal that it was safe for the “Catholic Left” to regroup behind Obama.

It has not gone precisely as planned. If the matter has successfully been driven from the front pages–and why wouldn’t it be, since the press had initially tried to ignore the story–no one has yet been knocked down by members of the “Catholic Left” racing back into Obama’s corner. Stunned by Obama’s initial plans (which, by the way, were codified last Friday, in their original form, even as Obama was speaking) the “progressives” are paused and perhaps skittish.

Focus for a moment on that reference to the HHS mandate plans which “were codified last Friday, in their original form, even as Obama was speaking,” because there’s been very little media attention on that. On my radio show the following Monday, American Center for Law & Justice senior legal counsel Ed White said he hadn’t seen media coverage of the fact that just hours after Obama’s Friday press conference declaring an ‘accommodation’ to the concerns of religious leaders, the HHS mandate was officially released in its original and unchanged form.

As Elizabeth Scalia stated:

Whether the “Catholic Left” can “hope” for more from Obama is questionable, as the White House Chief of Staff said over the weekend that the administration was finished with the issue.

This unwillingness of staunch Obama supporters to quickly embrace his latest idea and perform a full-pivot from the bishops has become for me the most interesting part of the story. As a rule, I think any of these men would be all-too-happy to leave the Bishop’s corners for Obama’s on this particular issue, but–in good conscience–they simply cannot. His stated mandate was so shocking to ideas of justice and constitutionality that whether the president is dealing in good faith has now become an unknowable—why did Obama feel a need to ensnare the churches in an issue that could have been attended to in other ways?

This is forcing an open examination of policies and goals.

If, upon gauging the dismay of his allies within the church, Obama had truly meant to assuage the consciences of his Catholic allies, he could have done so easily and clearly; instead his words suggested to some that even the narrow conscience clause offered in his first decision was at risk, and his solution looks like a shell game, analogous, as blogger Marc Barnes put it, to trying to force Orthodox Jewish restaurants to sell bacon, but then “accommodating” them by forcing them to “pay a Gentile with a bacon cart to serve pork” for them.

For that matter, if Obama had been genuinely interested in pleasing believers in general and Catholics in particular, he would have conferred with the bishops, and gotten their thoughts on the nuances between direct and indirect co-operation with evil, rather than going around them.

But Obama’s move on Friday wasn’t about nuance; it was about destroying the surprising unity of the “Catholic Right” and the “Catholic Left” on this issue; it was about dividing and conquering.


What the HHS Mandate has revealed is that the preservation of the freedom of religion–of the churches rights to be who and what they are and to exercise their missions–is worth going to the mat for, no matter which corner you’re coming from.

The USCCB has tried again and again to make that clear.

And as Yuval Levin warns, the White House sees religious freedom as a dangerous thing. Follow this through…

As [White House Press Secretary Jay] Carney or his boss might say: Let’s be clear. As things stand today, employers don’t have to provide insurance coverage to their employees, though many choose to do so, and if they do so they can provide whatever kind of insurance they choose (within the constraints of existing state laws and mandates)—based on their or their employees’ preferences and needs. Obamacare will require them to provide insurance or else pay a large fine to the federal government. And under the new HHS rule, it will also require that insurance (in the case of religious and non-religious employers alike) to include coverage for contraceptive and abortive drugs and sterilization. Senator Blunt’s [conscience protection] bill would allow employers to avoid being put in the impossible position of having to choose between providing access to services or products that violate their moral or religious convictions or paying a large fine.

Many of the bill’s supporters (though not all) would no doubt like to repeal Obamacare altogether—since the very nature of that statute means that situations like this are unavoidable. But at this point, in response to the HHS rule’s particular offense against our constitutional order, they have proposed a narrower measure that rolls back only a small portion of the law’s offenses against our basic liberties and merely restores the conscience protections that existed before Obamacare. And even that modest measure, simply allowing employers to have some measure of control over the services they will now be compelled to purchase for their employees, is asserted by the administration to be dangerous and wrong. The idea that “any employer could restrict access to any service they say they object to” is not some crime against humanity. It’s called freedom.

The White House’s reaction is yet further proof that the debate surrounding the HHS rule is about much more than religious liberty—and indeed is about much more than the HHS rule. It is about liberty as such, and the threats posed to it by Obamacare as a whole. It powerfully reinforces the case for replacing this detestable law, and for replacing its authors, with alternatives far more friendly to freedom and a properly limited government—not to mention far better able to actually address the problems with our health-care system.

As Carney says: “Decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss.” Quite right. And we might add: not by a woman and her federal bureaucracy either. The desire to have those decisions be made by a woman and her doctor does not point to Obamacare. It points to a reform of our health-care system that would give individuals more options and more control, and would use robust competition among insurers and providers—rather than yet another layer of oppressive regulations—to reduce the cost and improve the quality of American health care. It points to freedom, which means it points to the need to elect a new president.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....