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The clash between Obama and the Catholic Church, as seen by the BBC

The heart and soul of one particular Radio 4 programme was not on the side of the bishops

By on Wednesday, 20 June 2012

A sign at a religious freedom rally in Phoenix, Arizona (CNS photo)

A sign at a religious freedom rally in Phoenix, Arizona (CNS photo)

The Radio 4 Heart and Soul series earlier this month was about the current clash between President Obama and the Catholic Church in America. I listened to Matt Wells investigating “how President Obama has made an enemy of the Catholic Church and how this may affect his re-election”.

I have blogged on this subject before: it’s about how the US Department of Health and Social Services has made it compulsory for all employers to provide their employees with health insurance policies for contraceptive services, including sterilisation and abortifacient drugs. As one of the country’s largest employers, running colleges, hospitals, schools and charities, the Catholic Church would be forced to provide insurance for practices contrary to its beliefs. Many bishops have come out strongly against the mandate and do not intend to back down.

Ostensibly even-handed, it became obvious as I listened to the programme that Wells’s own heart and soul were more in tune with the liberal voices in the Church than with the bishops. He allowed Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Illinois, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York to argue that the issue was not about the morality of contraception so much as the right to religious liberty enshrined in the Constitution. Yet his questions were angled to imply that the Church should not get involved in politics and that perhaps a “ruling clique” of hard-liners in the bishops’ conference was to blame for this stand-off.

The programme concluded with the opinion of a religious Sister who felt strongly that the Church ought to come to an “accommodation” with Obama; apparently this is not the same as a “compromise”. She was critical of the “victim status” of the Church as she perceived it and thought it had been “hijacked by the far Right”. Then a Jesuit priest from Georgetown University came on air to say that the result of the bishops’ uncompromising stance would mean either a “purer” Church or a “sadder” one. He made it clear – and Wells was in tacit sympathy with him – that he believed the “sadder” scenario: in other words, the Church would come to be seen as unnecessarily divisive, out of touch with ordinary Catholics and ordinary Americans, morally rigid and in decline. Yet the “purer” Church, as I see it, is the one Pope Benedict would like: a Church that is Catholic first, American second.

Generally, the programme did not think it likely that the vast majority of American Catholics (who use contraceptives) would swing loyally behind their bishops when it comes to voting for a second term in office for President Obama this autumn. We’ll wait and see. I feel half-hearted about the prospect of Mitt Romney in the White House yet sincerely hope that Obama will prove a one-term president.

  • GFFM

     As you probably are well aware Sr. Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Care Association, a for-profit lobbying group in the US for Catholic “healthcare,” who supported Obama care has now said, that the Health and Human Services mandate is a major overreach into the civil liberties of Catholics. By every account CHA is a far left group which has supported Obama at every turn–except for now. There is little doubt that this massive, and unprecedented attack on freedom of religion in the US by the mandate has been spun as the “war on women.” I don’t believe most Americans, Catholic or not, believe in this hyperbole. This attack on the Church is by far the worst and most damaging action on the part of Obama. His failed economic programs, his inept diplomacy and fundamental inability to govern pale in comparison to this calculated attack on religious freedom. In effect, he and his administration have redefined what a religious organization is and what it can be involved in in the private sector. And mostly, the mandate was aimed at the Catholic Church especially because of her massive health care system, her educational system, her traditional adoption and family services, her work with the poor and the indigent, her work in social services,  her pro-life work throughout the country and the world, and her authority–battered as it is by the abuse crisis. The left in this country is “in love” with abortion. At bottom this is what is behind the mandate. This administration wants to diminish the moral authority of the Church by some “legal” fiat or means. This will be an ugly yet necessary fight because it is so foundational to the American Bill of Rights.

  • amator Dei

    It might be more accurate to say that the clash is between President Obama and some of the leaders of the Catholic Church. Whether the majority of American Catholics agree with their leaders’ opposition to Obama’s health-care reforms is another matter. In democratic states church leaders cannot dictate how anyone should vote – that may be fortunate for Americans who fall ill.

  • Patrick

    Actually, Pres. Obama’s health-care reform is unpopular with the majority of Americans…not just Catholic ones. It is very possible that it will be shut down entirely or partially by the U.S Supreme Court.

  • Recusant

    The Catholic Church IS the “leaders” as you call them. If we are not in communion with our bishops, the words of the Creed – “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church” – are just a meaningless platitude.

  • JByrne24

    One thing that American voters do not like (remember The Guardian) is a British journalist trying to tell them (using broad hints) how they should (implied) vote; consequently I shall not mention any of the presidential candidates or their political parties. 

    Many people (all workers) in the UK pay National Insurance Contributions (NIC), which, together with other taxes, pay for our own National Health Service (NHS). Comprised within these payments are all the funds for the NHS, including the health services of which the Catholic Church, presently, disapproves.
    Of course the general population, and in fact the vast majority of Catholics, ignore the Church’s ill-conceived teachings on the relevant matters – and everyone pays their NIC and taxes without claiming any right to deduct a proportion which reflects the sum paid for contraception etc.

    Ms Phillips, in my view, should mind her own business, and allow Americans to decide matters in their own free way.
    I note however that she takes the opportunity to give a passing kick to two of her own Bête Noires: the BBC and a priest of the Catholic Society of Jesus.

  • theroadmaster

    I listened to the program in question on BBC I Player, and it became apparently clear  as the broadcast progressed, that the BBC correspondent was leaving not very unsubtle hints that he was firmly on the liberal/secular side of the latest State/Religious clash.  The sympathetic nature of his comments towards the viewpoints of liberal religious interviewees and the hostile overtones of his questions to member of the US Catholic hierarchy who were standing firm in the face of the legislative assault on religious freedoms, should leave the listener in no doubt to the default ideological position of the BBC as a Corporation.  Other programs broadcast in the recent past which deal specifically with euthanasia and abortion, similarly showed up the British national broadcaster overstepping it’s own remit by presenting those two insidious evils as reasonable lifestyle choices


    “the vast majority of American Catholics (who use contraceptives)” actually this was a biased statistic presented by Obama to try and discredit what the Bishops where saying. No actual poll was taken and our Bishops have reason to say that this is false.

  • Jack

    As an American I know I pay taxes that go to all kinds of causes that I may disapprove of but that is not the same as forcing a religious organization to fund things directly contrary to their teachings. I’m personally not religious but I do understand our Constitution which enshrines both religious liberty and a wall of separation between church and state; so I’ll side with the Catholic church on this issue. Also, since my British friends here injected their views into our politics I will say that Britain is an example of  lack of proper separation of Church and State; the Church of England should be disestablished as the State Churches in Scandinavia have recently been.

  • theroadmaster

    Maybe it is you, who should understand, how the present onslaught by Obama on precious, religious freedoms, is going to compel Religious bodies and people of Faith to be co-payers towards “reproductive” insurance policies, which are morally repugnant to them.  The present US administration has set a very worrying precedent by it’s violation of the principles of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which have been respected by all sectors up until now at both a local and Federal level.

  • JByrne24

    But this obligation, to fund the health care, would only arise as a result of being an employer.
    The Church as an employer should observe the common obligations of all employers. 

    Employers, as distinct from religions, have common obligations set out by the State in all countries.
    The Catholic employers probably have (as in the UK) many employees who are not Catholics and who want these services, as well as many who are Catholics who also want these services.  

    The Church has no moral right to dictate to these two sets of employees that they shall not have the services that they wish to have – simply because the Church disapproves of them.

    I believe there is a paragraph in the oath of allegiance to the United States (that aspiring new citizens are required to swear) in which one refutes any and all former obligations and allegiances: “..I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate… etc….”.
    The College of Cardinals, the so-called  “Princes of the [Catholic] Church” and from whose ranks the Pope is elected, comes to mind.

    You are quite right, I think, in your comments about the Church of England (C of E). I hope you appreciate that virtually the entire population of England ignores the C of E for almost all of the time. It is brought into play during pompous royal ceremonies etc, probably with the aim of mystifying the populace, in the hope that they might believe that there is actually “something in” royalty (of value) which justifies its existence.
    In fact the monarchy in the UK is used as a screen (“The Crown” is above the law) behind which our hapless, dishonest and incompetent politicians can hide their errors and incompetences.

  • amator Dei

    I call them leaders because that is what they are. The Catholic Church IS all those who are members of it, not just the leaders. Being in communion with bishops does not mean having to agree with every view they express, certainly not the more questionable politically motivated ones. A church in which that was the case would be a most unholy dictatorship. Unity does not mean mindless uniformity. 

    Whether Patrick is right about what the majority of Americans thinks remains to be seen.

  • Jack

     Hi JB. I don’t believe that there is any right in our constitution to free contraception. Personally, I don’t intend to have any kids and I can get contraception at 9 dollars for a month’s supply. I don’t think that is an undue burden on anyone; however, it is an undue burden on small businesses to have to supply health care. The idea that if I start a business I owe employees health care is not a moral nor constitutional right its just an opinion. I would prefer that each state have free or discount clinics based on people’s needs but not burden small and mid size businesses.

  • ISB

     JB – So, if the government required employers to pay directly for their employees to have abortions that would be ok with you? The Catholic Church doesn’t just “disapprove” of birth control, it believes it to be a moral evil. It is not the same thing. As for your mentioning of the “renounce and abjure” clause in the US Citizenship oath – I have sworn that oath: I never for a moment believed it released me from my obligation to follow God’s Word as a Christian! “We must obey God rather than men” overrides ALL and ANY human obligations and oaths.

    As it happens, I’m a Protestant, not a Catholic, and therefore do not accept the that the authority of the Roman Magisterium is uniquely divinely instituted or infallible, and am thus unsure where I stand on the issue of birth control. But as I understand Roman Catholic doctrine, as a student of history and theology, to say that “the bishops are not the Catholic Church” (as some here have) is bad Catholic Doctrine – the Bishops are the embodiment of the teachings of the Church, the Magisterium, and when they speak in accordance with Canon Law and Papal teaching, (as they undoubtedly do in asserting that contraception is a moral evil) speak authoritatively.

    Therefore, for a Catholic institution to pay money to directly pay for contraception is to pay money for the purpose of funding a moral evil. Its hard to see how the Bishops could have responded differently with any integrity.

  • LocutusOP

    The Catholic church comprises only those who recognise the primacy of God through obedience to Church teaching (which unfortunately does not even include all the “leaders” as  you put it). This obedience is binding on the clergy as well as laity.

    Anybody else can call themselves Catholic – and those baptised into the Catholic church have a stronger claim than those who aren’t – but it doesn’t change the fact that they are outside the fold and have no valid claim to do so.

  • LocutusOP

    I haven’t seen the report, although I would have expected nothing less than what you describe from the BBC. In fact, I’m surprised they brought on anybody who tried to articulate the Church’s stance.

    I naturally oppose the contraceptive mandate, and actually, the entire bill as it is a gross encroachment into individual liberty, a gross extension of government power (which, at least in the U.S., seems clearly unconstitutional), and also the fact that this law extrends government control over aspects which are not clear at first glance.

    It seems to me, however, that some good can come out of this. One is that it might unite authentic Catholics and lead, as Mrs. Phillips put it, to a purer church. Another is it might finally awaken people to the realisation that we really are facing a determined enemy, and force people to either take their faith seriously or stop calling themselves Christians (incidentally, I do wonder why when presented wth all the arguments, some protestants still continue to insist that artificial contraceptives – especially they birth control pill – are in any way compatible with God’s will), and this might force the church to actually take an interest in teaching the faith, as opposed to assuming that somehow the culture will dole out morality or Gospel truths.

    The real question is this though: If the government can mandate the provision of contraceptives, then surely it can mandate that no insurance premium cover them. If the mandate is not overturned, then that should be the next move – to really put the culture of free sex on the defensive for a change.

  • Christy McGee Hughes

    I want candy as my employee benefits and since I want it, I should get it.  GREAT THINKING DUDE.   OH and another thing,  since i don,t want to have any more babies my employer will have to pay to kill then.  JUST PLAIN GENIUS!!!

  • Lewispbuckingham

     The present administration in Australia is quite happy  to fund both chaplains and counsellors in schools.This is despite a clear separation of church and state. In this case the High Court has blocked the funding of chaplains as the consequence of an appeal.Consequently the Commonwealth is going to pass enabling legislation to ensure the funding and presence of both chaplains and counsellors in the schools the parents choose.
    So the question remains Does the Obama Administration want to ensure the freedom of religious people to practice their faith or not? If he wanted to he could free up the system and let older people,gays and anyone who cares buy a package that included more intensive care, respite and counselling for example and not abortion and contraception if they don’t want or need them.You would then have a core package that leaves out eg abortion and the employer can go and buy that if they want.If the employee want’s abortion and contraception the employee adds them on in an ancillary, but the employer does not pay for that bit.As the abortion lobby is always saying, it should be a matter of choice.But it cuts two ways.The right to say yes, the right to say no.
     Why mention the Administration in Australia.Well its left of centre and the Prime Minister is an Atheist, but in this case it does not mean she tramples on parental religious rights.
     There is no obligation for employers to fund healthcare.

  • GFFM

     In the US, because of the religious freedom right spelled out in the Consitution’s Bill of Rights, institutions, as well as individuals, have a right to live by their founding doctrine. Hence, the Catholic Church does not have to provide contraception, abortion, sterilization or anything else which goes against its fundamental teachings on morality or sexuality to its employees. That’s what religious freedom means. So, employees who want such procedures have to pay for them themselves. They don’t have a “right” to make the Church or synagogue or mosque tell them what they must cover. I think you have missed this very basic issue. But then again, most Europeans do because religious freedom as Americans understand it is foundational principle in our democracy.

  • teigitur

    Thankfully few are interested in your view. Though some find them entertaining.

  • Maragaret Han

    Autism and downsyndrome is on the rise in America when just 30 years ago they were nearly non existent. Many contraceptives such as Depo-Provera, which are banned in Europe for example,  are promoted in the US for the precise reason that they contribute to sterility. However they are are really ineffective at permanent sterility and often result in mentally handicapped children. While I agree that society should be concerned with overpopulation in countries like the US, India, China, & Brazil, I disagree with the evil and the manipulative tactics of Planned Parenthood and Development Agencies of surreptitiously promoting sterility. Promoting sterility increases incidences of thousands of Autistic and downsyndrome babies; if that isn’t evil I don’t know what is.

  • JByrne24

    GFFM writes: “Hence, the Catholic Church does not have to provide contraception, abortion, sterilization….”

    It is not “the Catholic Church” as such that is being required to do this. It is rather employers, who are Catholic in their outlook and connected with members of the Church in various ways, that are to be obliged to do so.

    In addition the Church has no right to effectively deprive many Catholic and non-Catholic employees from this aspect of health care WHEN THEY WANT IT.  That  is a curious understanding of “freedom”, religious or otherwise.                                                                                                      

    [These employees may of course buy the necessary insurance cover - but only if they can afford it.]

  • JByrne24

    Well Jesus, of course, said nothing about contraception etc.

    As for God’s will? How do you know this opinion is “God’s will”?
    If somebody told you, or you read a book written by somebody who claimed this, ask him/her how he or she knows.

    These claims are all the result of the opinion of men.

  • JByrne24

    Well the burden on business of health insurance is an entirely different matter.

    This is an issue in the UK as well. It turns into a political matter that will be thrashed out like all the others in a free society – by discussion and debate, and not by doctrinal pronouncements from a Church. 

    Of course it’s not just contraception – but rather a range of health matters related to possible child-bearing that are involved.

  • GFFM

    First you need a course in what a Church is–Ecclesiology 101. Secondly, you do not seem to understand the rights of religious organizations to teach what they believe without being coerced by ideological positions and people which happen to be holding power. And finally you have NO understanding of what religious freedom is. Not surprising. Few people do because they are so used to state coercion and punishment.

  • GFFM

    “Well Jesus, of course, said nothing about contraception etc.” Your fundamentalism is definitely showing. Again, you basically misunderstand religious principles.

  • JByrne24

    Contraception causes autisn and Down syndrome?
    We had a similar disgraceful scare a few days ago, about abortion and breast cancer. 

    Down syndrome is surely caused by the presence of all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21.

  • JByrne24

    “religious organizations……..
    being coerced by ideological positions” – no comment!

  • JByrne24

    “Thankfully few are interested in your view. ” On this website I’m amazed anyone is.

    BUT, apart from this website teigitur, a real few agree with yours.

  • JByrne24

    I beg to differ. Polls HAVE been taken, and much research done on this, in the US.

    See the lecture by Sean Faircloth at Notre Dame Catholic University in the US, for example:

  • teigitur

    The narrow road, and all that!

  • Mack in Texas

    “There are men like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown, and there are those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth and I am their lion, and there is a mass that follows me because it follows anything that moves – and there is you.”

    - Henry VIII to St. Thomas More in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

  • JByrne24

    Well you were, pointlessly, saying that my road was narrower.

    The mob, and the few, have each been both right and wrong about many things.

  • teigitur

    No I was not. I doubt you are even on a journey, never mind the right road. Though , of course, its not for me to judge, just my thoughts.

  • Guest

    There is a newly published, must-read book takes a look at the legacy of the sexual revolution and contraception:“Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution” by Mary Eberstadt Book summary (taken from Our Sunday Visitor):[Fifty
    years after the Pill, many are gravely concerned about its effects. Are
    women better off in our “post-liberation” world? Are families stronger,
    dignity more protected, and relationships healthier now that
    contraception is widely available?Stanford researcher Mary
    Eberstadt provides a firm “no” in this important book. Her
    groundbreaking text draws on secular research from sociology, philosophy
    and culture to show how the Pill has been one of the most disastrous
    inventions in history. According to Eberstadt, “no
    single event
    since Eve first took the apple has been as consequential for relations
    between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception.”Eberstadt
    demonstrates that the increase in divorce, pornography and unhappiness,
    and the prevalence of abortion, date rapes, hookups and binge drinking
    all flow directly from the sexual revolution. She also shows how Pope
    Paul VI’s groundbreaking encyclical, Humanae Vitae("Of Human Life"), has
    proved prophetic in its dark vision of a contraceptive culture.]A short video preview of her book can be found
    here: insightful review of the book can be found here:'s
    much discussed Wall Street Journal essay — “Has the Sexual Revolution
    Been Good for Women? No.” — can be found here: info & purchase:

  • Isaac

    “Ms Phillips, in my view, should mind her own business, and allow Americans to decide matters in their own free way.”

    How is she preventing Americans from deciding matters in their own free way?

  • JByrne24

    What on earth is all the fuss about?

    This article is surely a crude attempt to provoke a row about nothing:
    President Obama came up with a compromise that “puts the burden on insurance companies, ordering them to provide workers at religious-affiliated institutions with free family planning if they request it, without involving their employer at all.” 

    Or am I being silly – and is this still an attack on Catholicism?

  • GFFM

     Again, take a course in basic ecclesiology. Then read the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, then read the Constitution, Jefferson and Madison’s work on religious freedom and then maybe a concept of religious freedom will enter your mind. Also read Locke. But then again, does anyone read Locke in England anymore?

  • Barbara

    You say you’re a Catholic?  It doesn’t sound like it to me.  This is a teaching of the Church from the beginning.  Many so called cafeteria Catholics do and say just what you said.  It’s sad, but we, as good Catholics, should embrace all the teachings of the Church.  Check your old Testament re: Onan spillling his seed on the ground and being punished.  I pray for all Catholics who see fit to pick and choose just what they want to believe.  Some even believe abortion is justified.  Jesus didn’t use the word abortion either, to my recollectiion. 

  • Barbata

    Oh, I don’t mind being told what you just told me.  I’m proud to believe everything the Church teaches.  But I don’t think for a minute that I misunderstand religious principles.  In fact, I understand them quite well.  And I’m not afraid to say so.  Too bad there aren’t more like us.