Why are (liberal) Catholics so upset with Obama?

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

4 thoughts on “Why are (liberal) Catholics so upset with Obama?

  1. 1) You are fooled by statistics. What percentage of Catholics have lied? What percentage of catholics beleive it is wrong to lie? Because you commit a sin, does not mean that you condone sin. This is one of Jesus’s demands, that though we are sinners, we must hold Christ up as our example and strive and fall and strive to do God’s will.

    2) The Church does not tell catholics what they can and cannot do. The church tries to tell catholics their understanding of what God asks us to do. God gave us free will. We can deny God and sin or we can obey God.

    Finally Catholics are being attacked by Obama partly due to Notre Dame’s horrible mistake in embracing Obama and granting him an honorary degree. Notre Dame gave aid to Obama and his positions on abortion (even up to birth) and contraceptive and misled many Catholics to support Obama.

    Catholics must understand that when they surrender their mission of charity and justice to the government to enact, they are making a deal with the devil. When we stand before God he will not ask us if we voted to help the least of our brothers, he will ask us if we did it ourselves as individuals.

    Finally if you support the idea of contraceptives, research Margaret Sanger and Eugenics.

  2. The argument that just because 93% to 97% of Catholics disagree with official Church teaching, (and I doubt the percentage is anywhere near that high), it must naturally follow that the teaching is therefore wrong, is unenlighted as it pertains to the nature of the Church as well as what constitutes “right” and “wrong”.
    The Church isn’t now, nor will it ever, be democratic. It’s not up to us to determine what is and what is not authentically Catholic. That belongs to the Bishop of Rome and to the bishops who are in communion with him.
    Jesus came into the world that all men might be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth. Not your truth or my truth, but God’s Truth. It isn’t relative in any way. Free will isn’t about having the right to make our own choices, it is the freedom to say yes or no to God as reveled through the prism of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Authority, and Sacred Tradition. The rest is silly nonsense that has nothing to do with the Catholic Church

    • Jimmy,

      I’ll just note that the argument you identify above is NOT quite the argument that Katie made in her quote. She said, “obviously something is wrong if that many Catholics aren’t following church teachings.”

      I’m sure some people make the argument you discuss, and you make some very valid points. But Katie was being more nuanced than you recognize, and I think it is important to point this out. She was not saying that the Church must be democratic, instead she was rightly arguing that there is a problem if the sense of the faithful is so at odds with the Magisterium.

      And I think that deep down you probably agree with her that this is a problem. Now, I think it is also fair to say that you and she imagine very different solutions to this problem of aligning the two. But neither requires a democratic vote on God’s Truth. According to the Church, the alignment will occur because of the persuasive power of Truth. As JPII noted in quoting Dignitatis Humanae from Vatican II :

      “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.”