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

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.