Three years ago, President Obama gave the University of Notre Dame’s commencement address, pleading for common ground with Catholics on thorny issues and vowing to seek a “sensible conscience clause” for doctors and nurses who oppose abortion out of religious objections.
Since then, however, relations have fizzled, to the point that Notre Dame and dozens of other Catholic institutions sued the Obama administration last week arguing that its new health-care rules infringe on religious liberty by forcing schools and charities to pay for contraception, which the church teaches is immoral.
“We do not seek to impose our religious beliefs on others. We simply ask that the government not impose its values on the university when those values conflict with our religious teachings,” the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, said in a letter explaining the school’s lawsuit. “We have engaged in conversations to find a resolution that respects the consciences of all, and we will continue to do so.”
Add to that Mr. Obama’s recent embrace of gay marriage, and the dividing line between his stances and Catholic doctrines is clear.
Still to be seen, though, is what Catholic voters will do at the polls — whether these battles will sour any who may otherwise have been inclined to support Mr. Obama for re-election.
Indeed, Catholics as a whole are a diverse group when it comes to voting patterns, with 48 percent supporting Mr. Obama compared with 40 percent who are planning to vote for presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, according to a Washington Times poll conducted earlier this month.
In a very close race, the president cannot afford to lose his advantage among the Catholic voting demographic, especially in key swing states with large Catholic populations, such as Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Indiana. The latter is home to Notre Dame.
“These lawsuits will highlight the issue for voters, and it may lead voters who are ambivalent to think more deeply about the issue,” said John Green, a professor of politics at the University of Akron who specializes in religious issues. “There is a capacity that this could influence the election, especially on the margins in battleground states like Missouri and Ohio.”
A national survey conducted in February by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & the Public found that 55 percent of Catholics favor an exemption from the contraception mandate for religiously affiliated institutions, compared with 39 percent of Catholics who think the requirement should apply to all employers and insurers.
Opinion also varies considerably by frequency of church attendance. Among Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week, 63 percent support an exemption, while 25 percent say religiously affiliated institutions should be forced to cover contraceptives.
The distinction is important, because people who attend church regularly are more likely to vote, especially in tight contests.
Of course, any disenchantment among Catholic voters could be offset by a surge in enthusiasm for Mr. Obama from his base, especially female voters who would benefit from greater access to free contraception.
The net impact on voters and the election is difficult to predict, Mr. Green said, especially considering the pending Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the health care law, which could gut the president’s signature legislative accomplishment or strike it down entirely, thus nullifying key mandates before the election.
“If the high court were to invalidate the whole law, then this debate goes away,” Mr. Green said. “But if it supports the law, then this debate takes on new meaning.”
During his speech at Notre Dame in 2009, Mr. Obama pledged to work toward common ground with those who oppose his policies on abortion and contraception.
He spoke about an exchange during his 2004 Illinois Senate campaign with a pro-life doctor who objected to a line on his campaign website that pledged to fight “right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.”
Mr. Obama said the exchange didn’t change his own views, but did cause him to change the website.
“I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me,” he said. “Because when we do that — when we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do — that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.”
Under the initial set of rules the administration announced, churches were exempt from having to provide insurance that covered contraceptives and some sterilization procedures, but their affiliated schools, charities and hospitals were not.
After several weeks Mr. Obama announced a new position he said would force insurers, not the Catholic organizations, to cover contraception costs. Notre Dame and other Catholic organizations rejected that, noting, among other things, that many large Catholic employers insure themselves, but said they would try to negotiate. But by last week, they said negotiations were stalling, and they filed suit.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, accused the White House of “strangling” the church by treating religiously affiliated schools, hospitals and social service organizations as secular institutions.
“They tell us if you’re really going to be considered a church, if you’re going to be really exempt from these demands of government, you have to propagate your Catholic faith, and everything you do, you can serve only Catholics and employ only Catholics,” Cardinal Dolan said. “We’re like, ‘Wait a minute, when did the government get in the business of defining for us the extent of our ministry?’ “
Asked about Cardinal Dolan’s comments, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration is open to talking with church leaders, but he said Mr. Obama is committed to the contraceptives mandate.
“The policy the president has outlined meets two important objectives,” Mr. Carney said. “One, it ensures that women have access to important preventive services, including contraception. Two, it respects religious liberty. Under this policy, no religious university or religious organization will have to pay for or refer for contraceptive services, and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly.”
Recalling one of Mr. Obama’s first jobs in Chicago with a church-based organization funded in part by Catholic charities, Mr. Carney said the president has a deep respect for Catholic institutions.
“So he is very well aware of the important role that institutions like that play in our society, the fact that they can provide services that can be more helpful than any government program,” Mr. Carney said. “He believes strongly in religious liberty, and the need to protect it. He also believes strongly in the need to give women access to, and provide preventive services that are essential, including contraception.”