SOUTH BEND, Ind.
In 2009, the University of Notre Dame bestowed an honorary degree on Barack Obama, praising the new president for “inspiring this nation to heal its divisions of religion, race and politics in the audacious hope for a brighter tomorrow.”
In 2012, Notre Dame served the Obama administration with a very different piece of parchment — a lawsuit charging that the president is engaged in a “repression of religious freedom [that] violates Notre Dame’s clearly established constitutional and statutory rights.”
What a difference three years makes.
Unless the Supreme Court invalidates Obamacare in its entirety this week, that lawsuit and the fight for religious liberty will almost certainly go forward. But regardless of how the court rules, President Obama’s attempt to use of his health-care law to divide American Catholics has backfired.
Some liberal Catholics have tried to portray the decision by 43 Catholic plaintiffsto sue the Obama administration over its contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drug mandate as a sign of the Catholic hierarchy’s shift to the right. They dismiss the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom,” launched this week, as a “Fortnight to Defeat Barack Obama” launched over the objections of moderate and progressive Catholic leaders.
There’s one problem with that: How do they explain the decision by Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, to sue Obama? A few years ago, the Catholic left was praising Jenkins’s courage for inviting Obama to Notre Dame over the protests of conservative Catholics. Now, suddenly, Jenkins is a tool of the Catholic right?
And what about Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, who became a hero to the Catholic left in 2009 when she broke with the bishops and endorsed Obamacare. Just over a week ago, Keehan sent a letter to the administration opposing the president’s so-called “accommodation,” declaring it fails to “adequately meet the religious liberty concerns of all of our members and other Church ministries.”
And what about Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., whom some liberal Catholics cited as opposing the lawsuit? Blaire recently affirmed his support for the legal action, declaring “I stand solidly with my brother bishops in our common resolve to overturn the unacceptable intrusion of government into the life of the Church by the HHS Mandate.”
The fact is President Obama betrayed progressive Catholics who stuck their necks out for him. In his 2009 commencement address here, Obama pledged to “draft a sensible conscience clause” into laws and regulations put forward by his administration, and to respect the religious liberty of those who disagree with him on abortion. If he had kept that promise, there would be no lawsuit today. Instead the president put pro-abortion politics ahead of his promise — and his actions united Catholics of all political persuasions in opposition to his actions.
The “accommodation” Obama announced in February was not an effort to reach a compromise. It was a transparent effort to re-divide Catholics. At first, it appeared to work. Jenkins initially called the accommodation a “welcome step toward recognizing the freedom of religious institutions” — a quote the White House immediately posted on its Web site. But Notre Dame quickly asked the White House to take down the quote and soon joined with others in filing suit to stop the mandate.
Critics point out that the vast majority of the nations’ 195 Catholic diocese did not go to court, offering this as evidence of liberal dissent. This is silly. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) was asked why his state was not joining a separate lawsuit by state attorneys general over Obamacare, he said there was no point in New Jersey suing if other states could establish the point for New Jersey. There is similarly no point in all 195 Catholic dioceses suing over the HHS mandate if 43 other plaintiffs can establish the point for them.
Indeed, this makes Notre Dame’s decision to sue all the more compelling. Jenkins could have stood on the sidelines and let the other Catholic plaintiffs establish the point for Notre Dame. But he chose to have Notre Dame not only join but take the lead in the fight for religious liberty. Faculty members I spoke with here say there is absolutely no daylight between Jenkins and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the head of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
The suggestion that Notre Dame or the bishops were bruising for a political fight with Obama is absurd. The Catholic Church has advocated universal health care since 1919. If Obama had kept the promise he made at Notre Dame, the bishops would have ordered the reading of letters from pulpits across America supporting the president — rather than condemning his assault on religious liberty from thousands of pulpits across America this weekend.
It is no coincidence that the bishops chose to begin their “Fortnight for Freedom” on the vigil of the Feasts of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More — Catholic martyrs who refused to accept the unjust impositions of an overbearing sovereign. Soon lawyers for Notre Dame may be arguing against the unjust impositions of the Obama administration before Supreme Court — and the president has no one to blame but himself.