Cardinal Roger Mahony is standing up against the Obama administration. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Fighting back against Obama’s divide-and-conquer approach

  • January 24, 2012

It’s rare that a bishop indicates publicly how he intends to vote. But recent events provoked just such a response in the United States.

President Barack Obama announced on Jan. 20 that his health care plan would require all employers to purchase health insurance for their employees which would cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. While churches with a moral objection would be exempt, universities and hospitals would not be. The upshot would be that Catholic institutions would be forced to purchase products directly contrary to the dictates of a conscience properly formed by the teaching of the Church.

One of America’s most senior bishops, Cardinal Roger Mahony, retired last year as archbishop of Los Angeles, spoke out forcefully. In more than 35 years as a bishop, 25 of them as archbishop of Los Angeles, the largest diocese in the United States, Cardinal Mahony was often portrayed in the secular media as a political liberal, supportive of the sort of progressive causes that President Obama champions. His response in this case demonstrates that political labels are not helpful categories, and that the Church’s social teaching is not a partisan matter.

“I cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience than this ruling today,” Cardinal Mahony began. “This decision must be fought against with all the energies the Catholic community can muster. For me there is no other fundamental issue as important as this one as we enter into the presidential and congressional campaigns. Every candidate must be pressed to declare his/her position on all of the fundamental life issues, especially the role of government to determine what conscience decision must be followed: either the person’s own moral and conscience decision, or that dictated/enforced by the federal government. For me the answer is clear: we stand with our moral principles and heritage over the centuries, not what a particular federal government agency determines. As bishops we do not recommend candidates for any elected office. My vote on Nov. 6 will be for the candidate for President of the United States and members of Congress who intend to recognize the full spectrum of rights under the many conscience clauses of morality and public policy. If any candidate refuses to acknowledge and to promote those rights, then that candidate will not receive my vote.”

With that thunderous intervention, Cardinal Mahony made it clear that, barring a change in policy, he won’t be voting for President Obama this fall.

Over the weekend, at the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, another of America’s senior bishops, had this to say, addressing different but related issues: “Catholics need to wake up from the illusion that the America we now live in — not the America of our nostalgia or imagination or best ideals, but the real America we live in here and now — is somehow friendly to our faith. What we’re watching emerge in this country is a new kind of paganism, an atheism with air-conditioning and digital TV. And it is neither tolerant nor morally neutral.”

When Cardinal Mahony and Archbishop Chaput are breathing fire on the same issue, it’s time to pay attention, for it may have significant political consequences in the United States.

The Obama administration has been following a divide-and-conquer approach to Catholic voters. The idea is to create an impression that Catholics do not agree on fundamental issues, and especially that the bishops are but one interest group among many in the Catholic world. The approach attempts to neuter the Church’s public witness, especially in regard to life issues, where the Obama administration takes an extreme position in favour of the unlimited abortion licence.

The first step in this was President Obama’s reception of an honorary degree from Notre Dame just months after his election. The American bishops had years ago said that public officials that promote abortion should not receive such public honours from Catholic institutions, but when Notre Dame defied that policy, it gave Obama a chance to side with one group of “friendly” Catholics against the “angry” bishops. It was repeated with real consequences during the health care debate, when Obama was able to split the Catholic Health Association off from the bishops, and thereby extend taxpayer funding for abortions — something previously prohibited in the United States.

In this election year, the insurance mandate was a third try. Time will tell if it is successful, but the immediate and forceful response indicates that the American Catholic community may not play along this time. Both Notre Dame and the Catholic Health Association also issued statements deploring the administration’s position.

It may be that 2012, in response to unprecedented attacks on religious liberty and freedom of conscience, will produce a united Catholic witness in the American public square.