Why did Obama anger Catholics? A straightforward response to this question has been provided by E.J. Dionne—the Obama administration’s failure to acknowledge Catholic universities’ and Catholic hospitals’ unique circumstances and exempt them from requirements related to contraceptive coverage was viewed as a betrayal.
In this post, however, I want to present this question as a puzzle. In hindsight, as with most historical events, it may seem obvious that the issue would blow up the way it did. After all, it IS what actually happened. But I want to problematize that view by exploring why Obama MIGHT have thought that Catholics in general and, at the very least, liberal Catholics would have let this particular issue slide.
First of all, on the issue of contraception, Catholics in the US (and especially liberal Catholics) overwhelmingly side with Obama, and not the Church hierarchy, on whether it is morally acceptable to use contraception. According to Bill D’Antonio’s recent reading of polls, 95% of all Catholics in the US say they have used contraceptives and 89% say the decision to use them should be theirs, not the Church’s. Of course, reality may be more nuanced than these numbers suggest. In my previous in-depth interviews with Catholics, I found the issue of contraception was a moral decision with which traditional and moderate Catholics often struggled and about which they sometimes experienced feelings of guilt. Still, most Catholics tend to support the availability of contraception.
Digging deeper, Catholics do make a distinction between individual moral decision making and provision of health care coverage, but a majority still appears to fall on the side of providing availability. For instance, when the issue is specifically about whether insurance policies should cover contraception, such as the birth control pill, Media Matters cites a 2009 poll in which 63% of all Catholics respondents argued that insurance policies (both private and public) should cover contraceptives such as the birth control pill. Note, however, that this support declined to 39% for the morning after pill, even when it is defined as “emergency contraception.”
And the Obama administration seems to be aware of this latter distinction. Recently, Secretary Kathleen Sebellius overruled the FDA, for the first time ever, refusing to allow the morning after pill to be sold over the counter to young teenagers. So, perhaps the Obama administration felt that it was “threading the needle” by overruling the FDA for OTC access to the morning after pill for teenage girls, but then mandating contraceptive coverage in health plans. But instead of finding mixed reviews among Catholics, the Obama administration received a seemingly monolithic negative response at the level of elite Catholic opinion. Why didn’t their approach work?
Let’s first recognize that the potential for this controversy is not new. In 2005, David Yamane’s book on 34 state-level Catholic Bishops Conferences highlighted their generally liberal political advocacy on economic issues and the expansion of health care coverage, but also noted how recent health care issues had served to divide these groups from Democratic policy preferences over time because of an overlap with contraception and especially life issues. Suffice it to say that health care has been a fault line along which Catholics and Democrats have been splintering over the past decade or two.
With that backdrop, it is worth noting what Obama did to minimize this splintering in the passage of the Affordable Care Act. First of all, Nancy Pelosi allowed an up or down vote on an amendment put forward by Bart Stupak and a number of pro-life Democrats in the House (the amendment ensured that current law–the Hyde amendment–would remain in place and would not need to be voted on each year), and the ACA also mandated that corresponding no-abortion and abortion coverage policies be made available to individuals in the state-created health care exchanges. Second, when senate Republicans balked at providing support for this same pro-life amendment to the already passed bill (in the hopes that their lack of support would torpedo the full bill), President Obama agreed to an executive order stipulating that the Hyde amendment guidelines be followed by his administration in implementing the ACA .
As Dionne notes, Obama still received grief from pro-life Republicans (and from many in the U.S. Bishop’s Conference) after the ACA passed, but not from liberal Catholics. With this decision on contraception, however, Obama angered Catholics across the board. So, for this post, I am going to focus specifically on liberal Catholics—the group that would seemingly be most supportive of Obama’s policy. Why did so many liberal Catholics feel betrayed by the administration’s decision?
It is NOT because liberal Catholics tend to support the Church’s position on contraception. While traditional and moderate Catholics views on this issue may not be as monolithic as the above statistics indicate, liberal Catholics ARE very nearly monolithic in their disagreement with the Church regarding contraception. In fact, disagreement with the Church’s stance on contraception might be the sine qua non for identifying as a liberal Catholic. Having said that, I want to acknowledge nuances in this disagreement. Especially among the highly committed, liberal Catholics sometimes make careful distinctions between potential abortifacients and other forms of contraception in outlining their moral reasoning on contraception, but such distinctions are not usually at the forefront of their mind when talking about the issue. And I don’t believe they are at the forefront of this current controversy either. In my previous in-depth interviews with self-identified liberal Catholics, Katie (pseudonym) was typical when she noted her dissatisfaction with the hierarchy’s position, “the contraception issue doesn’t match reality. What is it, like 93 to 97 percent of Catholics use contraceptives? So, obviously something is wrong if that many Catholics aren’t following church teachings.” In Dionne’s article, he puts it this way, “Speaking as a Catholic, I wish the Church would be more open on the contraception question.”
So, what gives? Why are liberal Catholics upset? This is the puzzle. What do you think?
Or perhaps you disagree with my supposition completely–after all, I don’t have any survey data to empirically verify that liberal Catholics have responded negatively to the Obama administration’s handling of this controversy. Of course, I have my own preliminary answer to this puzzle, which I will share in due course, but I would love to hear your answers as well. Or disagreements.
Update: Here is my preliminary answer