New tensions between bishops, White House
Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

An unusually blunt letter from the U.S. Catholic bishops’ president to President Barack Obama marks a new stage in the deteriorating relationship between the bishops and the administration.  

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said recent government actions “escalate the threat to marriage and imperil the religious freedom of those who promote and defend marriage.” 

Archbishop Dolan, in his letter dated Sept. 20, strongly protested the Justice Department’s action submitting a brief in a federal court case attacking the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act — federal legislation that defines marriage as a relationship between a man and woman. He took special exception to administration claims that support for DOMA was “rooted in prejudice and bias.” 

“The administration’s failure to change course on this matter [DOMA] will … precipitate a national conflict between church and state of enormous proportions and to the detriment of both institutions,” the archbishop warned. 

Archbishop Dolan pointedly noted “strong sentiment” expressed by more than 30 bishops at a meeting of the administrative committee of the bishops’ conference just before his letter was sent. But the range of the bishops’ “grave concerns” extends beyond defending traditional marriage against pressure for same-sex marriage. 

Underlining the seriousness with which the bishops view the situation, Archbishop Dolan later announced the creation of a new ad hoc committee of the bishops’ conference dealing with religious liberty issues, with additional staff at the organization’s Washington headquarters. Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., was named chairman of the new committee. 

Longstanding tension

Tension has existed between the bishops and Obama since before his 2008 election as president. Initially it focused on his well-publicized support for legalized abortion. Obama, for his part, lived up to his billing, selecting a pro-choice Catholic, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, as his running mate and, after his election, peppering his administration with other prochoicers, including Catholics like Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, whom he chose as secretary of Health and Human Services. 

Since taking office, Obama has continued to pursue the pro-abortion line, greatly expanding federal funding for abortion and including abortion coverage in his new health care program. 

But Obama also has moved beyond abortion and been an outspoken advocate on homosexual issues, though up to now stopping short of outright endorsement of same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, he ended the “don’t-ask, don’t-tell” policy against openly gay people in the military. Speaking at a gay-rights gala in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 1, the president delivered what The Washington Post called a “rah-rah message” of support for homosexual causes. 

Political calculation

Other presidents and their administrations have managed to disagree with the Catholic Church on issues without provoking the kind of head-on confrontation Obama and his administration seem bent on creating on the eve of a reelection contest many think the president might lose. So why the difference now? Two explanations stand out. 

One is that the president and his people consider gays part of their base constituency while more or less dismissing the Catholic bishops as a threat to his reelection. 

As a political calculation, this could well be right. Gay activists are now politically organized, militant, and on a roll, while the electoral influence of the Church hierarchy appears to have dropped over the years. That decline was illustrated by a recent finding that only 16 percent of American Catholics recalled having even heard about the most recent of the issue-oriented political responsibility statements — the closest approach to a Catholic voter guide — published every four years by the bishops; and three-fourths of those who said they’d heard of the document also said it had “no influence at all” on how they voted in 2008.

‘Most secular’ presidency

The second explanation — a more basic one — is Obama himself. 

Speaking in September at Georgetown University, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, Archbishop Dolan’s immediate predecessor as head of the bishops’ conference, referred almost casually to the chief executive as a “secularist.” 

Obama was raised and educated as a secularist, Cardinal George said, and although the president had embraced liberal Christianity at the time of his marriage, his mindset and values remain firmly set in that mold. 

The result, the cardinal added, is an administration that is “the most secularist administration in history.” As the nation may be witnessing, that doesn’t leave much room for concern about what the Catholic bishops think about abortion, gay marriage, or much else. 

In announcing the bishops’ religious liberty committee, Archbishop Dolan called its establishment “one element of what I expect to be a new moment in the history of our conference. Never before have we faced this kind of challenge to our ability to engage in the public square as people of faith and as a service provider.” 

“If we do not act now,” he said, “the consequence will be grave.” 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.