By Russell Shaw - OSV Newsweekly, 11/25/2012
Although Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, both sent President Barack Obama courtesy messages Nov. 7 congratulating him on his re-election, the unhappy fact is that a second term for Obama means serious trouble for the Catholic Church.
Barring a sudden change of heart, Obama will press policies favoring abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage even more aggressively and coercively in his second term than in his first.
Especially, he will move ahead on enforcing the Department of Health and Human Services mandate that requires Church-related institutions such as colleges and universities, charities and hospitals to provide abortifacients, contraceptives and sterilizations via employee health plans.
As if that weren’t enough, the election results also contain a deeply troubling message for the Church’s leadership regarding the state of American Catholics’ values and views.
According to exit polls, 50 percent of Catholics overall voted for Obama while 48 percent went for Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The 50 percent figure was a drop from the 54 percent of Catholics who supported Obama in 2008, but it still looked dismayingly high in light of the president’s well publicized and accelerating conflict with the Church since then.
The polls also showed a by-now-familiar split in Catholic ranks. The Romney vote among weekly Mass attenders was 67 percent, but the non-attenders outnumbered them. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that, overall, 62 percent of voters who never go to church backed Obama.
Significantly, 71 percent of Hispanics — a heavily Catholic group who were one in 10 voters this year — went for Obama. Romney’s declared opposition to liberal immigration reform in the heat of the Republican primary made that result virtually a foregone conclusion.
On the agenda
So, what can the Church expect from Obama now?
The HHS mandate, part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, goes into effect for Church institutions next Aug. 1. Cumulatively huge fines will be imposed on those that fail to comply.
In the past, Obama has promised to provide some “accommodation” for religious groups with moral objections to the mandate. But he hasn’t done that yet, and even if he does, the affected institutions still face the prospect of having their employer-employee relationship used as vehicles to deliver things the Church deems immoral.
Only action by one or more courts staying the administration’s hand seems capable of preventing this grim scenario from being acted out. More than 30 lawsuits brought against the mandate by dioceses and Catholic and non-Catholic institutions are pending in courts around the country.
Obama also is likely to have the opportunity of nominating one or more new justices for the Supreme Court. He will almost certainly choose a reliably liberal figure or figures like the two of his first term — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
That will shift the balance of power on the court to the left for years to come, with a definitive impact on cases involving abortion and same-sex marriage — as well as the HHS mandate, when and if a case on it lands before the court.
Some observers predict Obama will seek to expand the reach of the mandate with a regulation to include mandatory coverage for abortions and perhaps in vitro fertilization.
Assaults on life
Also possible in his second term is an attempt to revive efforts to enact legislation called the Freedom of Choice Act. Long sought by the abortion lobby that supported Obama’s re-election, FOCA would make on-demand abortion the law of the land, overriding restrictions by individual states.
In the face of this and other feared initiatives, the legislative firewall for the Church in Obama’s second term is the House of Representatives, where Republicans remain in the majority. Democrats retained and strengthened their control of the Senate.
The outcome of the election is a bitter setback for Church leadership, especially since some bishops made pre-election statements saying or strongly implying that a Catholic could not vote in conscience for a pro-abortion candidate such as Obama.
Among other things, the election result is a blow to the bishops’ religious-liberty campaign, which was launched last year with the aim of focusing attention on threats to the First Amendment rights of religious institutions as well as to the Church’s right to have a voice on public policy.
Presumably the bishops’ campaign will continue, but the Church’s ability to withstand a re-energized secularist assault on its institutions by a newly re-elected president and his administration and allies appears in doubt.
Among the lessons of 2012 is that neither general statements by bishops speaking in abstract terms about political responsibility nor statements that seem to favor one candidate over another do much good, and may in fact be harmful to the Church’s interests.
What’s needed instead appears to be twofold: involving Catholic laypeople publicly in shaping and communicating the Church’s position on policy questions, and undertaking a long-term, continuing program of education regarding the content of Catholic moral teaching and its application to public life.
To judge from Catholic voting patterns, ignorance and indifference about these matters now run deep among many nominal members of the Church. That is hardly likely to change unless and until the Church’s leadership tackles the difficult task of changing it.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.
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