The verbal war between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church advanced to an actual military front this week, as the Army tried to suppress a letter Archbishop Timothy Broglio had asked Catholic chaplains to read to soldiers during church services.
Catholics across the nation have mobilized. “Never before, unprecedented in American history, for the federal government to line up against the Roman Catholic Church,” Catholic League head Bill Donohue said in report by CBSNewYork.
In a highly controversial decision, the Obama administration has stood by a rule derived from the new federal health care law that requires Catholic schools, hospitals and other institutions to pay for sterilization and contraception, including abortifacients, substances that induce abortion.
The Department of Health and Human services carved out an exemption for churches and church employees, but not for affiliated institutions like church-run hospitals or universities. The administration announced a week ago that it would give religious organizations one year to comply with regarded to their affiliated institutions.
"In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences," said New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, a Catholic Cardinal-designate and president of the U.S. bishops' conference.
On Monday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius doubled down in USA Today, arguing the exemption she offered to institutions that primarily serve people of their own faith is adequate. She also observes that 28 states currently require contraception in insurance and eight have no religious exemption at all.
The exemption Sibelius offers does little for Catholics, however, as their missions often reach to the larger community beyond their own coreligionists.
The archbishop’s letter to soldiers painted the conflict in bold colors: “It is a blow to a freedom that you have fought to defend and for which you have seen your buddies fall in battle,” Broglio wrote, adding, “We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law.”
The other military branches approved the letter, but the Army first attempted to silence the chaplains. The Catholic Church fought back, calling it a matter of First Amendment rights. The Army has now reversed its position, acknowledging it was out of line, the Washington Examiner reported .
Catholic leaders are certainly aware of their leverage in a tough election year with an ailing economy, and are pressing aggressively on all fronts. The Obama administration seems out of kilter, unprepared for the onslaught. Tuesday morning on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Obama political advisor David Axelrod seemed to leave some opening for a political compromise to diffuse the impasse.
The conflict has escalated almost by the day, and reached across party lines. The Obama administration has been excoriated by even left-of-center Catholics like E.J. Dionne at The Washington Post, who argued that as a Catholic he would like more liberal birth control policies but as a liberal he is offended at the attack on religious liberty.
The conflict has not gone unnoticed by Republican presidential candidates, who see an opportunity to drive a wedge between the White House and a Catholic voter base that Obama carried by five percentage points in 2008. In his speech after the Nevada caucuses, for example, Mitt Romney pointedly declared that he would “defend religious liberty” and overturn any regulation “that tramples on our first freedom, our right to believe as we choose.”
In Colorado Monday night, Romney demanded that the president “protect America's first right, our right to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience," CBN News reported. Meanwhile in Minnesota, Rick Santorum said, "Whether Catholics use birth control or not is really not the issue. The issue is can you force a Catholic institution to pay for services that are against the teachings of the church, and clearly the highest freedom in this country is the freedom of conscience."
"We don't want to abridge anyone's religious freedom," Axelrod said, "so we're going to look for a way to move forward that both guarantees women that basic preventive care they need and respects the prerogatives of religious institutions."
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.