Obama’s ‘September surprise’ for American Catholics
By Phil Lawler | July 11, 2012
If Barack Obama is a clever politician, he will soon offer the US Catholic bishops another “compromise” on the HHS contraceptive mandate. Such a gesture could boost the President’s chances for re-election, and obviously Obama would welcome that result. The proffered compromise could also cause deep divisions within the Catholic Church in America, and the President would welcome that development, too.
Here’s the scenario, as I imagine it unfolding:
•In a few weeks, perhaps just after Labor Day, the White House will announce with great fanfare that President Obama has made an extra effort to accommodate the concerns of Catholics. The exact nature of this new “compromise” is immaterial. It will involve only a trivial change, on some irrelevant point. President Obama is locked into his position, determined to provide universal contraceptive coverage. He has no desire to address the bishops’ real concerns. Nevertheless the White House will tout the new policy as a huge concession, insisting that the President has gone out of his way—twice, now!—to accommodate Catholic concerns.
•The US bishops’ conference will greet the White House announcement politely at first, welcoming the President’s willingness to re-open the discussion, and promising to study the new plan carefully. But after reading the fine print, the bishops will realize that nothing of substance has changed, and announce that the revised plan is still unacceptable.
•However, before the US bishops’ conference has time to issue that measured response, Obama’s Catholic allies will leap into the game with their own prepared public statements, extolling the President for his vision. Op-ed columnists, notified in advance by White House operatives, will be ready with supportive essays, announcing that all reasonable objections to the HHS mandate have now been answered. The Catholic Health Association will wax enthusiastic about the new plan. Professors at Jesuit universities will appear on talk shows, delivering their confident opinion that the bishops have no choice but to accept the new plan. Prominent Catholic clerics will thank the President for his consideration. Perhaps even a bishop or two will join in the chorus of praise.
•Only a few perceptive analysts will notice the voices that are not heard in this debate. Feminists, abortion advocates, and family planning crusaders will not protest against the new White House proposal. A genuine compromise would have required them to yield some ground, and provoked at least a bit of grumbling. But the “compromise” offered by Obama will cost them nothing.
•When the bishops pronounce the plan unacceptable, then, these liberal Catholics will react with well-rehearsed disbelief. How could the bishops possibly hold out, they will ask, when Obama has answered all their objections? (In fact Obama will have answered none of the serious objections, but we’re talking about political perceptions here, not rigorous legislative analysis.) How could the hierarchy be so intransigent? As the presidential race heats up, the liberal criticism of the bishops will become more aggressive. The hierarchy is out of touch, Obama’s friends will say; the bishops’ conference does not speak for ordinary Catholics. The President himself will not enter the fray, but his campaign surrogates will encourage lay Catholics to dismiss the bishops’ opinions, characterizing them as purely partisan. The nastier critics will persistently remind us (as if we needed any reminder) that the bishops were not nearly so energetic in punishing clerical abusers.
•Meanwhile the Obama campaign will announce a series of initiatives design to appeal to liberal Catholics: increasing funding for Catholic Charities, eased immigration policies, a hike in the minimum wage. Taking their cues from Democratic campaign workers, Catholic activist groups like Network will denounce the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, as an enemy of the poor and downtrodden. If the bishops continue to hammer away on religious freedom, their liberal critics will insist that this is only one among many important issues. Now the party line will be that for all reasonable Catholics (as opposed to the unreasonable bishops), Obama is obviously the better choice: the champion of social justice.
Since I cannot see the future, I cannot guarantee the accuracy of this scenario. But the overall strategy makes sense for President Obama for two reasons.
First, the President and his campaign advisers are well aware of the poll numbers. Catholic voters helped Obama win the presidency in 2008. But recently they have been drifting away from him. If he wants to carry the crucial swing states in November he must reverse that momentum.
Serious Catholics—the ones who attend Mass regularly, and follow the teachings of the Church—will not be swayed by the strategy outlined above. They will listen to the bishops, reject the “compromise” on the HHS mandate, and look upon Obama with deep suspicion. However, Obama knows that practicing Catholics are already likely to support his opponent; he won’t waste time appealing to hostile voters.
On the other hand lax Catholics—the sort who rarely if ever practice the faith—have been sympathetic toward Obama in the past, and he needs their votes. Although their faith has lapsed, these voters still identify themselves as Catholics, and resent attacks on the Church. To date the bishops have been fairly successful in persuading lukewarm Catholics that the HHS mandate is such an attack. To win them back Obama must convince them that he is not threatening the religious freedom of the Catholic community. So his campaign will do everything possible to persuade these voters that they should ignore the bishops’ warnings and listen instead to the activist nuns, the Jesuit professors, and the liberal clerics.
Second, this campaign strategy—this drive to create an “alternate magisterium” for American Catholics—fits neatly with President Obama’s long-term political goals. Like anyone else determined to further the cause of the sexual revolution, Obama wants to break the moral authority of the Catholic Church. In his choice of cabinet members (think Kathleen Sebelius) and Congressional allies (think Nancy Pelosi), he has shown a marked preference for Catholics who reject the doctrine and discipline of their faith. This administration’s policies have always been guided by the principle that “the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.”
If American Catholics decide to ignore their bishops’ pleas, therefore, the President wins a double benefit. He not only improves his electoral prospects, but also undermines the teaching authority of the Catholic hierarchy. This development would be as welcome to the Obama White House as it would be dangerous to the Catholic faith.