Liberal Catholics challenge bishops on Obama's contraception rule
A growing chorus of progressive Catholic activists say the American bishops, above, don't speak for all Catholics on public policy matters.
February 15th, 2012
02:17 PM ET

Liberal Catholics challenge bishops on Obama's contraception rule

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.


- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Bishops • Catholic Church • Culture wars

soundoff (429 Responses)
  1. Kiki


    What not believing the crap that obama says is ad hominem fallacy?

    You are not better my friend.

    February 15, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • J.W

      No I am talking about calling people sheep because you do not agree with them.

      February 15, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  2. Kiki


    Alright I respect that and hope you can see someday that obama not all he crack up to be as a president.

    February 15, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • J.W

      I have mixed feelings about his health care plan as a whole, but I still do not think that Catholics should have their own special exemptions, while non-catholic beliefs do not have the same opportunities to get things that are against their beliefs exempt.

      February 15, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  3. Kiki


    I have been paying attention. I'm just not easily sway be obama charm like you are.

    February 15, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • J.W

      You seem to be resorting to the ad hominem fallacy

      February 15, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      To assume as such about me is ignorant. Do you truly think you know me? Perhaps I'm just one of those crazy people that doesn't assume that something that benifits Obama is a conspiracy set up by him.

      February 15, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  4. Kiki


    Not powerful my friend but very smart and never misses a opportunity to use anything to benefit himself. Too bad you a sheep to think different. 😛

    February 15, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • J.W

      I am a sheep? I doubt that consider I felt the same way before I had ever heard of Obama.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  5. Kiki


    Catholics fight about everything and won't change no matter who president. . I'm also wary of using any poll uses a small amount of people that defines how the rest of americans feel.

    It just I feel obama did this like many other to ponder to the left and disregard the rest of the voter crowds.

    February 15, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • J.W

      To be honest I did not even know Catholics had such an exemption before this. I don't think there ever should have been an exemption in the first place when other religions are not allowed exemptions based on their beliefs.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  6. Kiki


    And the fact that these organization of Liberal Catholics came around before Obama was elected mean absolutely nothing I'm sure."

    I'm sure they were a insignificant until obama came along to use for his politics purpose.

    February 15, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • J.W

      Wow Obama must be pretty powerful according to you. I am sure almost none of these women were using birth control before and none were getting abortions. Now 98 percent use contraception and they account for a third of abortions. Wow he has taken control of the minds of millions.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Why do you assume that? Because you haven't paid attention to them until now?

      February 15, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  7. Kiki

    I thought obama was suppose to be better then that according to liberals. But then again they are no better then the active evangelicals with shoving their beliefs down people throats. HawaiiGuest

    February 15, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  8. scaredsilly

    The church was so transparent on this. Nothing to do with birth control, all just politics. This is exactly why people are so dissolutioned with the Catholic church. Big mistake.

    February 15, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Celeste

      With no disrespect intended, we reformed sinners would appreciate if the Catholic Church would or maybe should show some small restraints when talking or challenging a matter that is reasonably worked out such as women contraceptives (birth control pills), especially when the insurance will pay for Viagra for men! Let’s examine and get everyone balanced here. Then some of the members or Bishops should be careful insinuating that the church will use its members money to pay for this, especially after years of the Catholic church having paid out millions of the same member’s money to hide the hideous and dark side of the many ill priest who broke their vows to GOD! The Catholic Church is a great body and does great work around the world, but it is balance and the moral issue is still intact.

      February 15, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  9. Observer

    It's been said here quite often that true Catholics follow all the teachings of the Church. By that I imagine the Bishops can probably claim to speak for all (true) Catholics. Would any true Catholic call herself a liberal Catholic?

    February 15, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  10. PrimeNumber

    Liberal catholics are very tolerant. The problem is, the more you tolerate the less you have to think. " Thinking is a narrowing process and it leads to what is called Dogma." – G.K. Chesterton. The church forged it's doctrine on contraceptives over many hundreds of years. Liberal catholics are just playing at it.

    February 15, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  11. Kiki


    Yeah. Obama number are up for surveying 1,049 people. That sure is the majority of americans allright. Obama always wants to force people to do things his way.

    February 15, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      And that differs from the politically active evangelicals how?

      February 15, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • J.W

      So you think that if it wasn't for Obama that every Catholic would strictly adhere to church doctrine?

      February 15, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  12. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    February 15, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Lisa P

      Not really.

      February 15, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
  13. Laverne

    @ RHO: Listen you said "So these people think they should be able to take a vote on church positions?", well it seems to me when the church makes a decision to run in the capacity of a "business" or run a business and offer services to the public they have to go by all other federal regulations and rules so I think Mr. Obama came up with a very reasonable solution all of knowing this is the way it is going to end up anyway. We need to move on and back to real "RIGHT NOW" issues!

    February 15, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  14. cali girl

    A bunch of grumpy old perverts who are discussing a womans right. This is really irritating.

    February 15, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  15. Kiki

    Liberal Catholics? Yeah right and more wool from the obama administration to cause more division.

    February 15, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • J.W

      More division in what? Obama's poll numbers went up after this. That must mean more people are agreeing with him that ever.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • PrimeNumber

      Liberal catholiics are not qualified to tell us what real Catholicism is. They can only tell us what suits their own tastes.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      And the fact that these organization of Liberal Catholics came around before Obama was elected mean absolutely nothing I'm sure.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  16. Howard

    to ME. Do you even know the issue discussed? I don't think so. Nobody is saying that you cant use BC. You can get it anywhere. BUT, to force a Catholic organization to pay for it is the issue at hand. Please do some research before you make a fool of yourself. And, do your kids know that they are all mistakes and that you wish you had aborted them?

    February 15, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • ron

      Maybe it's you who should take a moment to go back and read your post. You didn't mention the issue at hand either.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • J.W

      Why shouldn't every person have their own custom insurance policy if Catholics can do that?

      February 15, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • PrimeNumber

      I'm with you, Howard. It seems impossible to get people to understand what the real issue is here. You can't break through the prejudice.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • J.W

      Well why even stop with insurance policies? What if I dont want to give money to the department of defense? Why should I have to do that?

      February 15, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  17. Howard

    Liberal Catholics? what is that? Truth is absolute and not on a sliding scale. Wrong is wrong and Right is right. I don't get the notion that Truth should be adjusted because of the Times. Or, that their is a liberal Truth and a conservative Truth. Are you a woman first or a catholic first? I think that "liberal catholics" are severely confused and compromised in their Faith..

    February 15, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      So anyone that disagrees with your views doesn't know truth? Contrary to popular intolerant beliefs, it is possible to observe a relgion and have your own opinions. To assert otherwise is intolerant, and a wish to take away the choices and thoughts of others.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • J.W

      I agree with Hawaii. As a Christian I had a hard time finding a denomination that I agree with, and there are probably some things in my current church that I do not agree with 100%. It is almost impossible for a large group of people to agree on everything exactly.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • IreneNY

      Howard you sound rigid to a fault. You also sound judgmental and that you have the corner on being right about everything. I have a clue for you Howard, there are many shades of gray, too bad your vision is so narrow. Life hasn't humbled you but God can fix that, believe me.

      February 16, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
  18. Me

    As the Mother of Oops, Uh-oh and You gotta be kidding me, I find it ridiculous that some celibate dudes think it's immoral of me to use birth control. Not only is it to prevent babies my husband and I cannot afford, it also keeps me from needing another C-section and all its' possible hazards. So until those Catholic clergy start forking over dough for us to afford any additional mouths to feed, my Catholic hubby highly encourages me to use BC!

    February 15, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Not Again

      It would seem that you need better birth control. You'd think you would have learned better at "Oops." What were "Uh-oh" and "You gotta be kidding me," practice? It would seem that your not being cut out for celibacy is only the tip of the problem.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • james

      if you look just at official statistics, in terms of money spent AND people helped, the Catholic Church is the single biggest charity organization in the world. It is also the leader in offering crisis pregnancy help, adoption help, food, other necessities, and even monetary help, both in the US and in the world. What you have said is completely unfounded and entirely offensive.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • james

      And I forgot to add that they are the largest provider of charity medical help, having singlehandedly founded the hospital system itself, and currently maintaining a worldwide network of Catholic hospitals. The same goes for all the other charity work Catholics do. Before people accuse the Catholic Church of being "some celibate dudes," among other things, and of not doing anything constructive, are absolutely ignorant of the truth.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • 12genamerican

      Well said Me

      February 16, 2012 at 9:06 am |
  19. RHO

    So these people think they should be able to take a vote on church positions? Just how does the church drop a tenet that has been a constant for hundreds of years? To do so is to set the church adrift, just like the whacky democrat party. No core values. Better to excommunicate those who cannot support the church on fundamentals. The church will never abandon their position, and I think it is time to purge the church of pro-abortion Catholics.

    February 15, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • J.W

      That sounds like the appeal to tradition fallacy to me.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Ain't life Strange?

      Why not work on purging the church of pedophiles first... that's the bigger sin. They can't control their own, but they feel they have this God given right to control the lives of members in their congregation? Birth control is not abortion nor is it a crime. Get over your holier- then- thou selves.

      February 15, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  20. Thomas

    Thank You Liberal Catholics for being realistic and openminded.

    February 15, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.