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. Carl


    This is not a religious rights issue. This is a catholics thinking they deserve special treatment issue


    Well to be honest this isn't even an important issue for Catholics. In truth I suspect this is just an attempt to raise money in the next couple of sundays. Again as a group Catholics have our own set interests like any other group, but this article tries to highlight how the counsel of bishops here no longer represents us well. I volunteer with Catholic Charities here in NC in helping to feed the poor and while I can't speak and am involved with our hispanic Ministry (being half Hispanic) and I can tell you this.

    The Church you all think "exists" no longer exists as you think.

    February 15, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • J.W

      The point I have been trying to make really is that why do Catholics get an exemption from this in the first place just because it is a Catholic belief, but other denominations or religions cannot opt out of things they find morally wrong. It is not fair that the Catholics get special treatment in this way.

      February 15, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • anagram_kid

      Good point. My take on this is that it was a low hanging fruit to push back on what the right likes to call 'Obamacare' and this idea that President Obama is infringing on their rights. Catholicism is being used as a pawn. 'War on religion' is just the scare tactic of the week. In a few weeks they will return to Islam or Socialism as the scary beast hiding under the bed.

      February 15, 2012 at 9:28 pm |
  2. Carl

    98% of Catholic Women use contraception. Not all Catholic Priests and Msgnrs are as rigid as the old bishops are. In fact even the Pope has come out in favor for contraception. Our Bishops here in America are behind the times. But let's be honest, as a Catholic its easy to see there is a real split in the Church here. On one hand we have the elderly and near retirement age Catholics which are the main supporters of these old outdated views of the Bishops. However the MAJORITY of Catholics (And Catholicism in America is changing with the influx of hispanics and degree of return of younger people) don't agree with some of these antiquated policies.

    February 15, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • Mac58

      Your talking the" Gay church of vile", EPISCOPAL.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • Thinkologoy

      And next you will be supporting full fledged abortions because it might be what the majority wants. You sir, are making this a contraception issue. It is a religous rights issue.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
    • Carl

      Are you accusing me of being an Episcopal? I am not. Its just the facts that the Church here in America is changing. 20 Years ago every pew would be filled purely with traditional catholics and their children. But go now and you find a large Hispanic presence and younger reform minded Catholics who have filled the ranks of Catholics in America as the old leave in their way.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • Carl

      No I am not for abortions. But to think that this issue is being pushed at all when the Pope himself has come against the stance our American Bishops have taken is ironic. The Church is changing its ways and will be forced to change with the times for its own good.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
    • J.W

      This is not a religious rights issue. This is a catholics thinking they deserve special treatment issue

      February 15, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • anagram_kid

      If this was a religious rights issue the Church would refuse to cover any medication a person has to take due to obesity as gluttony is a sin.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
    • Mac58

      CARL are you saying the POPE is for Abortion? If he is I never heard that or I may of heard of a modern Crucifixion.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • Carl

      Mac, not abortion. But the need for contraception in the modern world. This is part of the Vatican's movement to become more modern and fix antiquated views of thinking. For example the Vatican now considers alien life as possible, has forgiven indignations on many scientists it has formely condemned recently, and established new ministries in the Vatican set out specifically to fix parts of the old ways.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • Carl

      @ Mac58, I recommend you read the Pope's book "Light of the World" where he stated condoms and other contraception is a moral need in the modern world.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Mac58

      Carl, Ok but to me any medication or medical procedure can be slipped into the wording of contraceptives. Maybe the American Bishops knows better than that of the Italian Pope how devious American politics work, Read the fine print.

      February 15, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • Carl

      Mac58, are you implying our Bishops are more competent than our pope? So many things wrong with that statement from facts to religious points.

      February 15, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  3. StewartIII

    NewsBusters: CNN.com Features Liberal Catholics Openly Dissenting From Bishops

    February 15, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  4. Mac58

    Abortion is used as a contraception, Abortion is murder.

    February 15, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      A purely idiotic talking point.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • Mac58

      Idiotic hum, the church sees it coming, I see the twist, by that I mean that Anything that ends a fertilized egg is an abortion. Just what the pro choice murderers want. It's all in the play of words Pineapple.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
    • anagram_kid

      “Anything that ends a fertilized egg is an abortion”
      So then god is committing murder with ectopic pregnancies, right?

      February 15, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest


      Did you just call me a pineapple? HAHA haven't heard that before. What next you gonna assume I live on the beach and surf? Get some originality. The thought that a fertilized egg is a human being is an opinion with no support from the scientific community. You intolerance and name calling shows how ignorant you really are. Go tool around somewhere else.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • Mac58

      Hawaiian sugar cane >>>>>>> Science vs theology, sorry I'm not trained.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  5. tcaros

    Here we are in the 21st century. The Catholic Church which has been scandalized by much worse, Pedophilia by priests, is concerned about someone putting on a condom.
    Condoms protect against disease and unwanted pregnancy. I guess the pedophiles in the Church don't have to worry about that for what they do.

    February 15, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • Thinkologoy

      Let me spell it out for you. You want to use a condom that's fine, but my church should not have to pay for it.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  6. batjones

    CNN continues to miss the real issue. The real story is the witness of big corporations efforts to reduce the cost of labor. Since the 1980's, corporations have sought to reduce all forms of wages and benefits to their employees – threats of outsourcing to instill labor fear; increase part-time and consultant employment status but at full-time hours; higher production demands at stagnant pay; anti-collective bargaining initiatives for benefit give-backs; leveraged buyouts and bankruptcies to avoid pension payments.

    February 15, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    Proven .

    February 15, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • TheRationale

      The problem with comments like these is that you're tempted to think they're satirical. But some people actually -really- think this way.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • anagram_kid

      Tell you what, prove you believe in the power of prayer and never wash your hands again. Instead, just pray your don't get sick and infect those around you. Remember there is nothing in the Bible about soap and/or bacteria, so God must not think washing your hands is necessary. If you refuse to do this, you don't really believe in the power of prayer.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • just sayin

      Ceremonial washing is extremely important in the Bible. You are mistaken. Psalm 57:1,

      February 15, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
    • TheIrrationale

      You are hearing from one who believes and relies on prayer.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • anagram_kid

      Just sayin,
      Hand washing is the #1 all time preventative measure that we take to prevent the spread of disease. The Bible does not make this connection. Is it a ceremony every time you use the restroom?

      February 15, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • just sayin

      The Bible does make the connection to sanitary bathing. Read the book. There are multiple references to cleaning oneself.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • anagram_kid

      Just Sayin,
      Please provide the chapter and verse that states people should wash their hands after defecting to prevent the spread of disease.

      February 15, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
    • anagram_kid

      sorry, meant defecating...

      February 15, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • just sayin

      Read it yourself I am not your personal researcher. Hint (try the laws).

      February 15, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • J.W

      The Bible does not even talk about defecating, or if it does very little. That doesnt mean that you should not defecate.

      February 15, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
    • anagram_kid

      Just sayin,
      You know it is not in there. Don't worry, I won't ask you to admit this...

      February 15, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • anagram_kid

      JW – DEUTERONOMY 23:12-14 Defecation: Carry paddle, dig hole, & cover up

      February 15, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
    • just sayin

      Brush up on your Hebrew and read the laws. You want answers they are there. You want to keep running your mouth count me out.

      February 15, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
    • J.W

      Lol I was afraid one of those first five books would have something like that.

      February 15, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  8. John Brown

    The bishop is corrupted. He is on RNC payroll so nothing new about his alliance. He should pay more attention to his pedhopile priests. Teach them not to touch little altar
    Boys anymore!!

    February 15, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  9. kingwassabi

    You don't listen to your Bishops and you call yourselves Catholics??

    February 15, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • J.W

      Why should they. The bishops suck.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  10. mmac

    59% of Catholics Disapprove of Obama’s Job Performance. The last 10 presidents have won the catholic vote.

    February 15, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • Kajal

      Where did you pull that from?

      February 15, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  11. Randy, San Francisco

    Unfortunate the Bishops did not show the same degree of outrage and indignation over the priest child abusers. The Bishops are not sensitive to the over ninety per cent of their members who use or support contraception.

    February 15, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • Thinkologoy

      It does not help to put up false information. 90% of Catholics do not support this nor use contraception.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
    • J.W

      Thinkology can you provide some sort of poll to show what you are saying is true. Because Randy is getting that number from recent polls.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  12. Marty

    Missing from the conversation of contraception is a specific male procedure: vasectomy. Do the Bishops accept it and who pays for it? Missing from the conversation of family: annulments. This practice is devastating and worse than divorce since an annulment means that the marriage is void, never existed. Basically, the Bishops 'consecrate' a union with one hand and then destroys it with the other hand. The Bishops should preach in their church and cease playing politics.

    February 15, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  13. catholic no more

    'consult' !! ha ha ha ha. not going to happen!! arrogant beyond belief the bishops have gone insane!!

    February 15, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  14. Bob

    Screw the papist idolater child molester protecting "bishops".

    Enough with the nazi pope meddling in American politics.

    February 15, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      The pope (to my knowledge) has not sanctioned any political action within the U.S. If he has I'd like to know the link to the information though.

      February 15, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  15. Maria

    They all live like Kings at the Bishop and Cardinal level too. This is nothing but hypocrisy on the part of old male clergy pontificating on women's issues. All the savings from not caring for womens health issues can now be used to close out law suits for the clergy's misdeeds.

    February 15, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  16. ThereGoYou

    What’s wrong with not forcing Catholic Charities to pay for human rights violations?

    February 15, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Kajal

      1. There are no human rights violations.
      2. They are not paying. It is more expensive for insurance to cover a lack of birth control

      If Birth control costs $30/month, and an unplanned pregnancy costs ~$30K to the insurer (pre-natal, post-natal, hospital stay, ultrasounds, etc), then for the insurer, it is worth providing free BC for 1000 months: which is almost a 100 years. The economics is unquestioned. Those who don't take birth control coverage drive up cost. Of course, ultimately, the choice of using birth control or not always resides with the person.

      When chuches go into business, they need to follow the rules other businesses have to follow. Simple.

      February 15, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • J

      Yes because your lord and master obama plays by the rules so well. *lol*

      February 15, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  17. Kiki

    HawaiiGuest you are ignorant if you believe obama can do no wrong and don't think he plays as dirty as the gop.

    I want to say that as respectfully as possible.

    February 15, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • Kiki

      Heck,I use to be ignorant of that about obama and one of my favorite dem too.

      February 15, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      When did I ever say that Obama can do no wrong. You continually make assumptions about me, and then attempt to say you are trying to be respectful? There is a contradiction here that you need to be aware of.

      On a somewhat seperate note it would be easier to keep up with the conversation if you posted replies in the same thread.

      February 15, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  18. Kiki


    I want to say sorry if I offended you with the sheep comment. As you been more the respectful with me here. I wonder how much this would matter anyway if the health care bill gets strike down?

    February 15, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  19. JOHN

    Are progressive Catholics really Catholics or humanists in disguise?

    February 15, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Kajal

      Are extremist catholics really catholics or feudalists in disguise?

      February 15, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  20. open400

    I am 55 and Catholic. Catholics look at the Catholic Church's position on contraception the same way we use to look at "no meat on Friday." – something you frown at. The first time I asked one of my sister about contraception and the Church she said: "The Pope is just another man telling women how to run our lives. The Pope doesn't have to raise kids. He lives in a paid for palace and lives like a king."
    If Santorum thinks, he is going to turn this election around on this contraception issue, he will look very out touch and old fashion. BTW: 50% of the voters are women.

    February 15, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Lisa P

      Thanks for this! I've been amazed at the number of posters on this issue that seem to think being against contraception is some kind of core belief of Catholicism, right up there with the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Seven Deadly Sins. It's not. In fact, I'm not even sure if it's an ex cathedra doctrine or just something a bunch of bishops worked out in council, a mere stab at coming up with some kind of official Church policy in response to a changing world.

      I'm also just a little shocked that so many commenting on the Obama Administration's policy seem to think that "Freedom of Religion" means that the Federal Government is supposed to help religious organizations enforce their religious doctrines on their own members as well as anyone from a different faith who happens to be associated with the preferred church. What hogwash! It's an individual right to freedom of conscience - no one can force you to use contraceptives if you believe it's wrong and no one can force you not to use them if you believe it's o.k. - not an open invitation for Church-State collusion, which for all practical purposes might as well be picking a one religion over all others to be the official State-sanctioned theology.

      February 15, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • rtwingal

      I suspect more than 50% of voters are women. However, the issue is not whether women should or should not use contraceptives. The issue is whether the First Amendment precludes the federal government from ordering religiously affiliated organizations from providing insurance benefits covering conditions/activities which are contrary to the religious beliefs of the religion. You say" The insurance company will donate the contraception coverage." Remenber, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

      February 15, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • J.W

      So should other religions be exempt from covering things that go against their beliefs?

      February 15, 2012 at 8:35 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.