Can Obama still turn the tide with Catholics?

By Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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The Obama administration and the Catholic Church haven't exactly seen eye to eye on certain issues, but this week's decision to overturn an FDA decision allowing minors to purchase Plan B contraceptives brought something new for the White House: nearly universal praise among Catholics.

Obama has taken repeated criticism from Catholic leaders, especially when it comes to the issues of abortion, contraception, and marriage. And the Department of Health and Human Services--in particular HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius--have been one of the church's primary opponents, thanks to their mandate that employee health plans include contraceptive coverage and their denial of a grant to the USCCB for its anti-trafficking programs.

That's why it came as a surprise to some that Sebelius overruled the FDA on the sale of Plan B--aka the "morning after pill"--over the counter to minors. And President Obama, though not directly involved in the decision, said he supported the decision.

Many Catholics who are frequently harsh critics of the president applauded the move, included many in the pro-life camp. Joining those pleased by the decision were USCCB media director Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who previously had accused HHS of having an "Anybody but Catholics" rule, and the Catholic Health Association.

That doesn't mean everyone is happy. The scientific community feels Obama is going back on his promise to put science first and feel he is caving to pressure from the Catholic bishops and others who oppose contraception. And some see the move as a way of trying to repair the damaged relationship between the White House and the church.

Those watching closely in recent weeks may not be as surprised by the decision. Archbishop Timothy Dolan reported on having a very positive private meeting with President Obama last month, and a White House spokesman said the administration is looking to "strike a balance" on the contraception mandate, which may suggest that a stronger exemption for Catholic organizations is in the works.

So far, this is just one decision by the administration that has gained them a pat on the back from Catholics--albeit a skeptical one. With less than 11 months left until the election, Obama will have to do a lot more to win over the leaders of the church and to prove to them that he'll be more sympathetic to their concerns than whomever his opponent ends up being.

It remains to be seen whether the president can walk the fine line between repairing the bridges he's burned with some Catholics without alienating his other supporters in the process. His success, or failure, could play a key role in determining who ends up in the White House come 2013.