President Obama’s remarks on Catholic schools during his trip to Northern Ireland this week have sparked an unexpected uproar, with critics accusing him of diminishing religious education.
The backlash, which has grown steadily since Mr. Obama made the comments Monday, once again has put the commander in chief at odds with the Roman Catholic Church, which is fighting a provision in the president’s health care law that requires religious institutions to provide free birth control for their employees.
Mr. Obama made the comments during a speech in Belfast while addressing the removal of “peace lines” in Northern Ireland, physical barriers set up between neighborhoods — inevitably one almost entirely Catholic and other overwhelmingly Protestant — designed to calm sectarian tensions.
Children in Northern Ireland attend state schools that differ according to religion. In nearly all cases, a Catholic family and a Protestant one living next door will send their children to different schools.
“Issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity — symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others — these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it,” Mr. Obama said.
“If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear and resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation,” he said.
Those words garnered little attention in the U.S. in the hours after they were spoken, but in the days since, Catholic figures on both sides of the Atlantic have taken aim at the president.
“Catholic education is not the source of ‘division’ in Northern Ireland, nor are [Catholic schools] a source of division anywhere in the world. Catholic schools educate children without regard for race, class, sex, origin or even religious faith,” said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“The work of Catholic education is a response to the Gospel call to serve, not divide. In a free society, Catholics have every right to operate schools,” he said.
It’s hardly the first time Mr. Obama has been perceived as attacking the Catholic Church. The administration has been embroiled in lawsuits filed by Catholic universities, businesses and other groups seeking exemptions from contraception provisions in the health care act. The cases have centered on whether requiring a Catholic organization to fund contraception violated First Amendment religious freedom rights. The church teaches that contraception is intrinsically evil and forbids direct cooperation with it.
Mr. Obama also came under fire in 2009 when he addressed graduates at the University of Notre Dame, which later became a party to a health care reform lawsuit. Officials at Notre Dame were criticized for allowing a pro-choice figure to address students at a renowned Catholic institution. Fights have unfolded at other schools across the country when pro-choice figures are chosen as commencement speakers.
Now, however, Mr. Obama is under fire from Catholic leaders around the world.
He also walked into a context different from the images that separate schooling conjures in American minds. In Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, government-funded separate schooling is treasured by the minority community (Catholics) as a historic concession from the officially Protestant state and as a way to preserve its own identity.
A bishop in Northern Ireland is accusing the president of a “hackneyed” analysis of politics in the nation and how religious schools play into the issue.
“While so many young people are very open to new friendships and opportunities, it needs to be stated that it is adults outside schools who promote mistrust for their own political and personal agendas,” said Auxiliary Bishop Donal McKeown of Down and Connor, according to the Catholic News Service.
The White House has released no statements on the matter. An administration official told BuzzFeed that there is nothing more to say “beyond what the president said in his speech.”
Ironically, both Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden attended Catholic schools as young men. The president spent time at a Catholic elementary school while living in Indonesia from 1967 to 1971. Mr. Biden attended Archmere Academy, a Roman Catholic college preparatory school in Delaware.
Other high-profile Democrats, such as former President Bill Clinton, have spoken of how they benefited from a Catholic education — in his case Georgetown University.
Reaction to Mr. Obama’s comments from religious groups hasn’t been all negative. The progressive group Catholics United defended the president’s take and said the “Catholic far right” is merely picking a fight.
“President Obama’s comments are directly on point and in no way disparage Catholic education. Obama has been a consistent supporter of Catholic schools and has held multiple events honoring them at the White House,” said James Salt, the group’s director, as quoted by BuzzFeed. “The real story here is how far the Catholic far right will go to disparage this president. Simply put, Obama’s detractors have taken an innocuous yet important comment out of context as a way to score cheap political points.”