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February 1st, 2012
09:23 PM ET

Is Obama losing the Catholic vote?

By Eric Marrapodi and Brianna Keilar, CNN

(CNN)–After years of bridge building with the Catholic Church, the Obama administration may have damaged some of the good will it built up with the nation's 70 million Catholics, which could have steep consequences at the polls in November.

Some rank and file Catholics are beginning to express the same frustrations as clergy about a new U.S. Department of Health and Human Services policy requiring all employers, including religious ones, to pay for FDA-approved contraceptives, such as the birth control pill and Plan B, through health insurance plans. Churches are exempt but hospitals and schools with religious affiliations must comply. The new policy goes into effect August 1, 2012, but religious groups who oppose contraception have been given a yearlong extension to enforce the policy.

"What's offensive is that we're being told, our Catholic institutions which serve this nation well, are being told you who find these things offensive, you should pay for them, in fact you must pay for them," Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, told CNN.

Catholic teaching opposes the use of contraceptives.  Wuerl acknowledged the clergy and the faithful have been at odds over the teachings on contraceptive use. But on this policy he said both are in lockstep over what is being perceived as a violation of religious liberties.

"This time around what people are seeing this isn't a question of one moral teaching or another, it's being able to teach at all. Our freedom, and everyone has a stake in freedom in this country, and I think that's why this resonates across the board," he said.

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Wuerl is calling his congregants to action, asking them to call congress and the White House to express their displeasure.

"We're beginning to say to our people this is what the issue is, it's wrong, we've never experienced this in the history of our country before, this is a violation of the basic rights of conscience and religious liberty. So you need to know that and you need to speak up," he said.

The timing of the administration's announcement has drawn criticism for being tone deaf, coming just three days before tens of thousands of protesters, many of them Catholics who oppose abortion rights, came to Washington for the annual March for Life on the anniversary of Roe vs Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide.

"In my estimation it's a huge misstep politically," said Stephen Schneck a political scientist from Catholic University who has consulted with the administration on Catholic issues. In 2009, Schneck also worked with pro-abortion rights Democrats in Congress on the president’s signature health care reform measure to find language that ensured government funds did not pay for abortions.

"The way in which the narrative is being developed is that the administration is at odds with the Catholic Church fundamentally. What I'm seeing in the pews is something of a waking up, a Catholic solidarity. That I think could very well carry over into their political activities" Schneck said. "There's nothing like having a sense of opposition to you to rally the troops and I suspect that's going to happen here."

Schneck pointed particularly to states with large Catholic populations where this new solidarity could have a far-reaching political impact.

"If you look at where those Catholics are, they're in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Florida, which are of course critical states for anyone who wants to become president of the United States," he said.

In 2008, President Obama won 54% of the Catholic vote, according to the Pew Research Center. Early on in his presidency, Obama reached out to Catholics. He appointed prominent Catholics to several cabinet positions and ambassadorships.

In May 2009, the president delivered the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame, where he spoke of working together on abortion.

"Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women. Those are things we can do," the president said to rousing applause from the crowd in South Bend, Indiana.

In shaping the new Health and Human Services policy, the administration reached out to New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who is the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the public policy arm of the church in the United States, and other Catholic leaders in November to seek their input in the process. Many of the same Catholic leaders received a heads up on January 20 several hours before the administration announced the policy.

"This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty. I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in the statement about the policy.

On Tuesday in the White House briefing room, Press Secretary Jay Carney again defended the administration's decision when pressed by reporters.

"After very careful consideration the administration believes that this strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious beliefs and increasing access to important preventive services. We will continue to work closely with religious groups during this transitional period to discuss their concern," Carney said.

The administration is extremely concerned this will affect Catholic voters’ support.

As the opposition grew this week, the administration noted to reporters there were Catholics in and out of government who support the measure, as well as interfaith groups.

Late Wednesday night the White House launched the first part of an information campaign to spell out what the policy change does and does not do.

An administration official also pointed to nearly $2 billion in federal grants that have gone to Catholic-related charities since the beginning of the administration as a sign of the willingness to work together.

James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, which hasn't taken a position on the HHS policy, said there could be a silver lining for both Catholics and the administration on this issue. He said with more women able to access contraceptives there could be a reduction in abortions stemming from unplanned pregnancies as a result of the policy.

"More needs to be done on both sides. It's not just a question for the administration, it's a question for the pro-life community and the pro-choice community to put aside their heated rhetoric and find common ground," Salt said.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Abortion • Barack Obama • Belief • Bishops • Catholic Church • Christianity • Church and state • Politics

soundoff (2,744 Responses)
  1. Janine from TX

    Let me see, don't they only have to pay if their employees actually take birth control? If their such "good little Catholics" and obedient to their church, doesn't that mean this is a mute point as they wouldn't be buying contraceptives? I don't get what the beef is with the Catholic church. I wish they'd keep their religion out of politics, once and for all! Tax them if they want so much influence on our political process.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • ricnaustin

      Well, Mit the Mormon and Newt the Catholic adulterer aren't keeping it out.

      February 2, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  2. Rosslaw

    Does anyone believe that the majority of Catholics adher to the teachings of celibates who ferociously protect the child molesters within their ranks concerning birth control and contraception. While a small segment might dream of the day when they can impose a Rick Santorum version of sharia law on the rest of humanity, the rest of us are just trying to do the best we can. The Catholic Church has no problem bending the rules for the like of Newt which just causes it to lose more credibility.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  3. John Smith

    So this is wrong, but letting the priests touch little boys is ok??? Because no one ever seems to care about that issue! Dangerous these Catholics I tell you!

    February 2, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  4. Adrienne

    Catholics are not monolithic, despite the reports that indicate otherwise. I am a Catholic, and I will always support Pres. Obama. More important to me are issues such as helping the poor and disenfranchised, and Mr. Obama is certainly doing more in those areas than any of the GOP candidates hoping to win the presidency.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • Janine from TX

      You are absolutely right, the church should focus on what Obama stands for overall and that's caring about the poor and middle class. If they think Romney or Newt give a rat's patootie about anyone but the wealthy, they are wrong. The church needs to distance itself from the political system.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  5. jackthegeek

    Are you kidding me ?? He loses the votes regardless of religion, christian, Jews, etc ...

    February 2, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • ricnaustin

      It's a scare tactic.

      Why would anybody vote for Newt the catholic adulterer?

      February 2, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  6. Bill from PA

    I don't disagree with any of the comments made, however I don't see this as an issue of birth control or women's rights only but rather whether the goverment should require organizations affilliated with any religion to provide services contrary to the belief of the religion.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • BRC

      @Bill,
      Of course they can, as long as it is in the best interest of the Nation's citizens. Remember, the Consttution protects people, not organizations. The First Amendment says the government can't force a person to use birth control if it is against their religious beliefs, but it is completely legal for them to make ALL employeres (regardless of their beliefs), provide all employees with the same medical benefits. It's the person's choice whether or not to use them, not the businesses choice whether or not to provide them.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  7. Harry Baxter

    He's only losing the Right-Wing, "our way or the Highway" Catholic vote, which is a small minority in the Catholic Church. This minority is composed of the Clergy, and those who believe in the infallibility of the Clergy. While I'm against abortion at will, trying to outlaw contraception in all cases is beyond stupid. As a Catholic for 75 years, I love my church, but I'm not too enthused about the hierarchy.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • nc_writer

      Well, if you're defining it that way (those who believe in the infaliability of the clergy), then it is a very, very small group. But Obama will never lose them because he never had them. Mankind is flawed. All members of the church are flawed too.

      But the central question here is whether a religion can be forced to pay for things that are against their faith because the government says they have to.

      If I know the Catholic Church, the answer will be no. Not just no, but they will refuse to cooperate with the government under any condition. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  8. Switters

    Unlike the Mormons and the Teapublicans – American Catholics rarely do as their 'bishops' direct them.....

    February 2, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  9. Johnny 5

    Religion and politics don't mix. Want to soil something? put religion in it. Want a roadblock for reason and logic? put religion in it. Want to get religion out of something? pull out a fossil !!!

    February 2, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  10. Charlie from the North

    If he gets the vote of every Catholic who ignores Rome on birth control and matters of the like, he will get the Catholic vote by a landslide. Where will they turn to? The Bible doesn't spend a lot of time on birth control but I believe the poor are mentioned quite often. Mitt "doesn't worry about the poor and Gingrich wants to blame them.

    Think about that Catholics

    February 2, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  11. mrbias

    Dear Leader knows best!

    February 2, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  12. lps

    I sure hope he loses the catholic vote and along with that the hispanic vote.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  13. Julie

    When the Catholic church provides me with enough money to help raise all the children they think I should give birth to, then I will consider not using birth control.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • FatherWannaBE

      Gosh Julie, that's just pure ignorance. The Catholic Church isn't forcing anyone to have babies. It says children are a gift from God, not some by-product of marriage. The Church isn't forcing you to perform the marital act when you are fertile (which is only 4 days out of the month). If you had any self-control, you would see that you could enjoy the marital act 24 days out of the month without getting pregnant. But peoples self-centeredness has taken control, and they want all the pleasure with none of the responsibility. Birth control isn't a reponsible choice – it's the result of people using people because they have no control. Please stop spouting ignorant babble.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • nc_writer

      Julie, there are acceptable forms of birth control – they are abstinence and the "rythm" method. We Catholics have names for the people who use them, we call them parents.

      Beyond that, consider that faith and religion is an attempt to subordinate the materialistic to the spiritual. Xes is fun, yes, but do you control it or does it control you? Allowing it to run wild in a hedonistic way is surrendering to the material in your life and keeps you from achieving your spiritual potential.

      Other religions say it in other ways. Secular belief systems don't say it at all, they say more, more, more.

      Your choice – but does that help you understand a little better about birth control in the Catholic Church? This isn't church doctrine, just my observations.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Bob

      So Father, how is your suggested timing method fundamentally different from other forms of birth control?

      Hint: it really isn't. Your whole religion is a sham and its followers are disgusting hypocrites.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Bob

      And Father, speaking of ignorant babble, the bible is chock full of it.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Janine from TX

      @FatherWannabe: Your reply still has me laughing my behind off! What a hoot. "The marital act", you say? Ignorance is thinking women are only fertile 4 days. Talk about ignorance, you take the cake today! It would benefit you to step out of the Dark Ages for just awhile to see what science has been up to.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  14. Bruce

    People are going about this all wrong. If you want to discourage people from birth control, or at least keep government from encouraging birth control, your arguments based on theology and morality will fall on deaf ears. Heck, even the Catholics in America basically ignore the Vatican's teaching on birth control (except for abortion, of course). Nobody really believes, save perhaps for the clerics who don't have wives and old people who are long-past their years of fertility, that it is immoral for a husband and wife to - as consenting adults - manage their family size through the use of, say, a birth control pill or a cond.om.

    So, the moral argument will ultimately fail (though I have to admit that while I completely disagree with it, I do find Santorum's overarching very-Catholic narrative that connects se.xual morality to the success of our economy through the idea of human dignity to be compelling and well thought out, if ultimately misguided) to accomplish what you want, if that is what you want.

    A better argument would be to look at the birth rate among different people, and show what happens over time to a group of people whose women give birth to less than 2.1 children (on average) in their lifetime, and then show what the availability of birth control does to average birth rates. A good case study is what is happening in Europe.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • nc_writer

      Bruce, I don't think you understand. Those who are the true faithful don't need to be told otherwise – they understand and embrace the theology with needing secular rationalization. Those who need the secular rationalization...aren't.

      But regardless...yes, Obama is losing the Catholic vote. But more than that, he should be losing the American vote for the same reason. Catholics are looking at Obama now that he's taking an action that impacts their faith and realizing that he isn't in line with the Catholic way of life. Americans should be doing the same thing, realizing that Obama is demanding, controlling and authoritarian and that isn't the American way.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Bruce

      nc_writer: I think you overestimate the number of "true faithful" (aka the true Scotsman) among the Roman Catholics in America. My experience, growing up in a Catholic family, is that very, very few of them embrace the moral teachings of the Catholic church when it comes to birth control (though they pretty much are all against abortion).

      As far as mandates and health insurance goes, that's a different issue entirely. If you take away the mandates in the name of freedom then, from a purely practical standpoint, health insurance fails because healthy young men don't buy health insurance, and health insurance simply does not work if healthy young men don't pay for the services of the unhealthy, the old, and the women who give birth. It's simple actuarial science 101.

      We can sit here and pretend that health insurance mandates go against the free market principles and pretend that this equates to a loss of freedom, but the truth is that collective shared risk (aka insurance) is not a free market at all and is in fact a function of government. But, that's a more-fundamental observation regarding the nature of insurance and the nature of a free market, not a moral argument or a religious argument.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Demanding, controlling and authoritarian isn't the American way?
      What about the Patriot Act that granted the government unheard of powers of arrest, detainment and spying on private citizens?
      What about John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 that allows the federal government to station troops anywhere in America and take control of state-based National Guard units without the consent of the governor or local authorities, in order to "suppress public disorder."
      The Military Commissions Act of 2006 that allows Americans to torture and detain anyone they like anywhere in the world?

      February 2, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Janine from TX

      @nc_writer: Nothing Obama does impacts your "faith" unless you want it too. Is he mandating women to take birth control? No. Let people be accountable for themselves and get off your holy high horse. Women in America have choices; we like it that way, that's freedom. If you don't like that, move to Iran or some other theocratic country where there are no choices. As Americans we will fight for freedom to choose whether we take birth control or not.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  15. Terry

    I guess with all of the illegitimate children created by Catholic Priests, the church might need government help with child support, and of course, "The Children Left Behind".

    February 2, 2012 at 9:24 am |
    • FatherWannaBE

      Gosh you're ignorant or just plain mean. Two in 15 years in this country? Does that qualify you to declare that SO MANY Catholic priests have fathered illigetimate children? Sweeping generalizations are signs of insecurity. Thats as bad as saying that all Catholic priests are pedophiles because .025 percent of abuse was a priest and a male child. There is no excuse for ANY abuse, but to make these uneducated generalizations about a population based on ignorance is just wrong.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  16. .Jacque Ray Blue

    History teaches us that mankind never learns from history! ...and tyranny comes in many colors!

    February 2, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  17. trex

    ......CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS, who are you voting for, the VERY VERY RICH "cult" Mormon, or the womanizing, lying, disgraced SoH, or, the ONLY PROCLAIMED BORN AGAIN CHRISTIAN who is in the White House today......?...................................PS:............the old goat from Texas, and the former 1 termer from PA dont count

    February 2, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  18. unretired05

    What's interesting to me is, in the GOP, the Mormon is getting a higher % of Catholic votes than his two Catholic opponents.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • nc_writer

      Perhaps because Catholics are open minded people? But why are you surprised that someone who is a member of one group would embrace someone outside their group? Does the fact that you're surprised say more about you than it does about them?

      February 2, 2012 at 9:34 am |
    • Bruce

      nc_writer: I'm actually surprised that more Catholics aren't pulling for Santorum and helping to make him the conservative alternative to Romney. He's the one most-clearly voicing the Catholic argument where human dignity takes center stage and pulls in not only the se.xual morality aspect (g.ay marriage, abortion, birth control, etc.) but also the long-term success of our economy.

      That Santorum isn't doing as well as he perhaps should with Catholic Republicans reinforces my observations above that most American Catholics are not really paying attention to, and do not buy into, the Vatican's teaching on these things.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Whether Catholic, Mormon, Muslim or Atheist – nobody believes that Gingrch is a faithful Catholic (except maybe his third wife).

      February 2, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • blucorsair

      This is more about the survival of our country and beating the most expensive president in US. history who added an aditional $5 trillion to our national debt in less than 3 years as rep[orted by the CBO and the Treasury. Religions of all types, businesses and the middle class are uniting everywhere in this country to stop this maniac president, before he spends another $5 trillion with nothing to show for it! in ...people can't even afford food and fuel anymore with "O"bucks!

      February 2, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  19. dean morse

    Again, religious beliefs becomes entwined in government. It is not acceptable to mix the two. And just where do the Catholic holier than thou stand on the neglect, abuse and disposal of our children? Where are the Catholics when it comes to financing education budgets? Afterschool programs, school lunches for the needy? If you talk the anti-abortion talk than walk the childcare walk.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • David from Maryland

      Please check out Catholic Charities and Catholic Hospitals. Oh, and Catholic Schools. And don't judge us by the actions of a few (fake Catholic) priests and bishops.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • jimtanker

      And just who are fake and who are real?

      You're all a bunch of nutjobs believing in fairy tales.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • nc_writer

      Where are the Catholics? They're right there with everyone else, providing charity, love and service. You should look for them, then realize how you sound here. I'll include you in my prayers for your understanding.

      February 2, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  20. Joe from CT, not Lieberman

    Puhleeze! This is not the 1950s when Catholics walked in lock-step to whatever the Bishops said! When you look at the Bishops in America, today, you see a vast differences in style, too. Some are so arch conservative that they would consider some of what Rick Santorum does to be heretical. Others are so liberal that they have willingly accepted a serial adulterer into the flock. Some live like they are still Medieval Princes and others like humble monastics. That being said, with all the problems related to the Church these days, the Bishops have lost the moral high ground they used to use to force their wills on the laity.

    February 2, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Bob

      Indeed, those are forward, positive steps that you describe, but the huge positive step will be for the entire set of followers to leave the whole set of silly Catholic supersti-tions behind entirely. We can hope...

      February 2, 2012 at 10:10 am |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.