February 15th, 2012
02:17 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
Washington (CNN) – America’s Catholic bishops have criticized the White House’s mandate for insurers to provide free contraception coverage to employees, but plenty of other Catholic groups have endorsed the plan – some taking swipes at the bishops in the process.
“The Catholic bishops and their allies in the Republican Party are increasingly isolated,” James Salt, executive director of a liberal group called Catholics United, said in a statement over the weekend supporting the White House’s contraception rule.
“The bishops’ blanket opposition appears to the serve the interests of a political agenda, not the needs of the American people," Salt continued, e-mailing his group’s support for the White House to tens of thousands of Catholics nationwide.
Another Washington-based Catholic operative, John Gehring, e-mailed reporters over the weekend to knock the bishops for criticizing President Barack Obama, even after his administration revised its contraception rule Friday to mandate that insurers – not Catholic institutions – pay for birth control coverage.
"You have to ask why the bishops can't take yes for an answer," wrote Gehring, who works with the progressive group Faith in Public Life.
On Wednesday, Gehring helped organize a call with reporters to discuss a congressional hearing this week at which some bishops are expected to testify against the contraception rule. "I believe everything my church teaches," Nicholas Cafardi, a prominent Catholic lawyer, said on the call, voicing support for the birth control rule. " I don’t consider this as a question of dogma, but of how we apply Catholic teaching in the real world."
For the White House and Democratic Party, such expressions of Catholic support have been helpful, providing political ammunition against conservative allegations the administration and party are anti-religion and are at war with the Catholic Church.
But the support has not come easy. It reflects a years-long campaign by liberal Catholic activists to push back against the leadership of their church on controversial political matters – and years of White House bridge-building with a spectrum of Catholic groups.
In an election year in which Catholics will constitute one of the nation’s biggest swing voting blocs – and in which the bishops are likely to continue slapping the White House – the political heft of a new generation of progressive Catholic groups and the White House’s Catholic outreach efforts are about to face a huge political test.
Groups such as Catholics United and Faith in Public Life got off the ground during and just after the 2004 election when a Catholic Democratic presidential nominee – Sen. John Kerry – was hard-pressed to find Catholic support in the face of condemnations from some Catholic bishops over his support for abortion rights.
Kerry, the first Catholic presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy, wound up losing the Catholic vote to George W. Bush, who made Catholic outreach a priority.
“For too long, the far right owned the values debate and there were very few progressive and religious groups willing to speak out in specific and strategic moments to help shape that debate,” Catholics United's Salt said. “But since 2004, there’s been a turnaround.”
The emergence of progressive Catholic groups such as Catholics United helped Obama handily win the Catholic vote in 2008.
And such groups provided Catholic support for the president in 2009, when he faced conservative Catholic criticism over his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, and in 2010, when the bishops opposed Obama’s health care law, alleging that it left the door open to taxpayer-funded abortion.
Some activists from the new progressive Catholic establishment have been hired into the Obama administration, including Alexia Kelley, who started a group called Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good after the 2004 election, and John Kelly, a Catholic outreach liaison for Obama’s 2008 campaign.
“This will be a surprise to some, but this has been an extremely Catholic friendly White House,” said Stephen Schneck, a Catholic University professor involved with a handful of progressive Catholic groups. “It probably has more Catholic members than just about any presidency I can remember.
“That’s partly been the way that the administration has been able to court Catholic progressives,” he said.
Since its early days, the Obama White House has heavily courted Catholic organizations like Catholic Charities, USA and the Catholic Health Association, which voiced support for the revised contraception rule, upsetting some bishops.
That support was politically important for the White House because the administration doubted it could ever win support from the bishops, even after Friday’s revision.
“Unfortunately, the White House knew all along that there was no chance in reaching the bishops - Richard Doerflinger, John Carr and the Bishops Conference staff are far too cozy with right-wing politicians on the Hill to have any real negotiation,” says a senior Democratic official, referring to influential bishops conference staffers.
“Until a bishop shows some leadership over their own staff, it’s going to be hard to negotiate,” the official said, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss White House negotiations.
A spokesperson for the bishops said the White House never consulted them on the contraception rule.
“When the President called Cardinal Dolan… it was merely to tell him what the White House had already decided,” the spokesperson said, referring to Timothy Dolan, president of the bishops’ conference. The spokesperson also insisted on anonymity because the bishops don’t typically speak on dealings with the White House.
“Never was there an attempt to collaborate or learn what kind of accommodation might have been acceptable,” the spokesperson said.
A survey released Tuesday from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that among Catholics who have heard about the issue, 55% support giving religious institutions that object to birth control an exemption from the federal contraceptive rule, while 39% oppose exempting those institutions.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.