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HENDERSHOTT: Why are Catholics furious?

- - Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The University of Notre Dame's Dec. 3 decision to file a lawsuit challenging the federal mandate requiring religious employers to provide contraceptive coverage — including sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs — had to be a difficult one for Notre Dame President John Jenkins. After all, it was only a few years ago that Father Jenkins was lauding President Obama as a "leader who has great respect for the role of faith and religious institutions in public life."

In 2009, Father Jenkins defied his own bishop by awarding Mr. Obama an honorary degree and an opportunity to give the commencement address to Notre Dame's graduating class. Ignoring the condemnations of 81 Catholic bishops from throughout the country, Faather Jenkins stayed strong in his support for the president — despite the fact that Mr. Obama has voted to expand abortion rights, including partial-birth abortion, whenever he could.

The commencement became a real scandal for Notre Dame and the Catholic Church — one that Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., warned would bring "disgrace and dishonor to the Golden Dome of Notre Dame it will mark a day of shame and blemish for the Catholic record and reputation of Notre Dame." Yet, throughout the controversy, Father Jenkins ignored criticisms from faithful Catholics and their clerical leaders. When he introduced the president at the commencement ceremony, he praised him for assuring us all: "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square."

Well, maybe not. Father Jenkins was wrong when he said that the president has respect for the role of faith and religious institutions. He was also wrong when he said at the commencement that "President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him." It seems that the president has indeed stopped talking and negotiating with Catholic leaders on religious freedom. This is exactly what the Health and Human Services lawsuit is all about. The Obama administration's Health and Human Services mandate demands that we leave our religion at the door of our homes before we venture out to our jobs or our places of business.

Most faithful Catholics predicted this would happen. Yet, progressive Catholics such as Father Jenkins actually believed that the president would respect religious freedom. Even amid the Notre Dame commencement controversy, Catholics remained among Mr. Obama's strongest supporters. An April 2009 Pew Research Center poll revealed that more than two-thirds of all Catholics (67 percent) said that they approved of Mr. Obama's job performance — despite the fact that he had already implemented policies that would expand abortion. Catholics were more supportive of the president than any other religious group, including mainline Protestants (60 percent), and much more supportive than white evangelical Protestants (33 percent).

Progressive Catholic groups such as the George Soros-supported Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good helped Mr. Obama win the presidency in 2008 by convincing a majority of Catholics (54 percent) that he was truly the pro-life candidate because he would eradicate poverty as the reason for abortion.

Those days are over. While we do not have recent polling data on Catholics specifically, it is likely that Catholics are joining the majority who no longer trust the president to tell them the truth. Recent CNN polling data reveals that 53 percent of those surveyed think that Mr. Obama is not honest or trustworthy, and 56 percent of respondents said they did not admire him.

Progressives from these Democratic Party-affiliated groups, such as Catholic University professor Stephen Schneck, a board member of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, still defend the Obama administration by saying the "administration's accommodations are sufficient to protect the Catholic conscience for administrators of these plans at Catholic universities." However, evidence points to an increasing number of progressive Catholics — especially millennial Catholics — moving away from the president and his policies.

Father Jenkins continues to seem bewildered about the way his relationship with the president has ended so badly. Like a spurned lover, still unable to admit to himself that he was used by the president to provide Catholic cover, Father Jenkins posted a statement on the Notre Dame website last week thanking the president for "undertaking these discussions in good faith." Stating that he was "grateful to the administration for the time it gave to this matter and for its efforts to accommodate our concerns," Father Jenkins wrote, "We have concluded, however, the government's accommodations would require us to forfeit our rights, to facilitate and become entangled in a program inconsistent with Catholic teaching and to create the impression that the university cooperates with and condones activities incompatible with its mission."

Faithful Catholics know that Father Jenkins began his entanglement with activities incompatible with the mission of Notre Dame on the day he invited Mr. Obama to campus for the commencement ceremony. Perhaps it is time for him to realize that.

Anne Hendershott is director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. She is the co-author of "Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops Is Revitalizing the Catholic Church" (Encounter Books, 2013).