Tutored by a fierce little platoon of tireless, ambitious and well-connected neoconservative intellectuals, many of the most influential Catholic hierarchs in the United States did everything in their power to obstruct Barack Obama’s first-term agenda. Fevered opposition to Obama was evident at the bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore, one week after the 2008 election, when one bishop after another warned, often in apocalyptic terms, of the grave danger that the new president posed to the nation and to the sanctity of life. First among the bishops’ fears was that Obama would shepherd into law the Freedom of Choice Act, securing the right to abortion by statute and eliminating state and federal restrictions on the procedure.
Obama, a moderate politician with little interest in inflaming the public on the abortion issue, did no such thing. Yet the episcopacy’s fears were not allayed, and in 2010 the relationship between the hierarchy and the administration flared into confrontation. After decades of advocating for universal healthcare, the bishops opposed the president’s Affordable Care Act, alleging that it would open the door to federal funding of elective abortions—a judgment rejected by other anti-abortion Catholic groups, including the Catholic Health Association. Tensions escalated in 2011, when the Department of Health and Human Services determined that free contraception must be included in every healthcare insurance plan. Exemptions were given to certain religious institutions, such as parishes, but not to Catholic universities or hospitals. When the bishops objected vociferously (and rightly, in my opinion), the administration backtracked, proposing an accommodation that spares such institutions direct involvement in the funding of contraceptives while making free contraception available to employees through third parties. Accusing Obama of waging a “war on religion,” the bishops and their allies scoffed at this compromise and proceeded to mount an even more aggressive political and legal campaign of resistance. (In February, the Obama administration issued a revised set of guidelines concerning the accommodation. So far, the bishops and their allies have rejected the proposal.)
In April 2012, as part of its effort to overturn the mandate, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” a broadside condemning the contraception mandate and other alleged threats to religious freedom. The document invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight against legal segregation, characterizing the mandate as an “unjust law” that “cannot be obeyed” and calling for a national protest movement to resist “totalitarian incursions against religious liberty.” A number of bishops went further, making it clear that no “faithful” Catholic could vote for Obama. One prelate in Illinois compared the president to Attila the Hun, Hitler and Stalin, a paranoid vision worthy of Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.
This was not a view widely shared by Americans, or ultimately by most American Catholics, who voted to re-elect the president by a margin of 50 to 48 percent. The election results, a triumph for Obama and for pro-choice Democratic Senate candidates, also included the approval of same-sex marriage in three states over the church’s voluble opposition. Mark Silk, a columnist and blogger for Religion News Service, observed that the bishops “got their butts kicked from coast to coast.” Yet they remain obdurate. Many are convinced that the United States is moving inexorably toward a regime of religious intolerance, where those who hold to traditional biblical notions of sexual morality will not only be ostracized but discriminated against and even persecuted by the government. Stirring such fears, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, former president of the USCCB, has warned that while he expects to die in his bed, his successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr.