President Obama

On Monday 40 Catholic organizations, including the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. and the University of Notre Dame, filed suit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services over its contraception coverage mandate. The announcement was made early to catch, and presumably shape, the week's news cycle.

It's important to stress that this has never happened before. America's bishops have chosen a key moment in an election year to sue the president over one of his policies.

No sitting president has ever been sued en masse by Catholic religious organizations and Catholic bishops.

Never before has a sitting president been so pointedly told by America's Catholic leaders what he can and cannot do.

The lawsuits launched against the administration argue that Obama’s healthcare law (Affordable Health Care Act) requiring insurance plans to cover birth control for women without a co-pay violates the religious freedom of Catholic institutions.

But the reason for the Obama administrations plan is to reduce health care costs by preventing unwanted pregnancies, many of which end in abortions. The plan provides health care and family planning to all women, not just those who can afford to pay for it.

Incidentally, birth control pills are used to treat a host of other women’s health problems quite unrelated to sex and reproduction.

Health care professionals will candidly tell you, contraception is less expensive than abortion or pregnancy, which in turn prevents the nation’s health care premiums from rising so quickly.

No woman is under the obligation to use contraception, but under the new rule, if they choose to their health insurance must provide it. The law doesn't force Catholic women to use contraception.
So this is hardly shattering stuff. Studies have shown that 98% of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their life. Catholics are not practicing what their church is preaching, in other words.

It's a remarkable development, this lawsuit, for what it tells us about the widening gulf between America’s church leadership and the flock they claim to represent.

Again, it also sets an appalling precedent, since the church is effectively telling the president of United States what he can and cannot do.

It certainly hasn't helped that right wing elements in the church have deliberately promoted the false claim that the Obama administration would require Catholic employers to provide abortion-inducing medication. This is simply not happening.

But by allowing politics to set the agenda, it becomes harder to ascribe your motivations purely to the religious faith you claim to be defending.

It seems that America’s Catholic bishops not only wish to deny women access to abortion under any circumstance, but clearly they appear to want to criminalize all forms of birth control as well.

Note the irony of that -- people who despise abortion fighting to prevent women from gaining access to contraception. America’s Catholic bishops seem to want to bring us back the world our grandmothers lived in (and were thankful to escape).

For right wing Catholics like Rick Santorum and the authors of this wrongheaded lawsuit, sex is only ever had for the purposes of reproduction. If you don’t conceive the union is potentially sinful.

That’s the kind of perspective that used to be called extreme. Now it’s the line in the sand that’s being fought over by the bishops, Notre Dame and the host of counter signers to these lawsuits.

It would probably help if voters didn't like most of the provisions of what many now call Obamacare. But a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that a majority of the public now opposes repealing the law.

So the church is sailing against the tide of public opinion (and history) and gunning for the president in an election year. This seems like an overreach to me, and a potentially damaging one at that.

It also hasn't helped Americas Catholic Bishop Conference's profile that in recent weeks they have attacked the country’s hardworking and dedicated nuns for focusing on socialist stuff like helping the poor and the sick find access to health care, instead of bashing gays and preaching against abortion and contraception.

Critics have replied they would have been more impressed if the bishops had attacked the rampant problem of sexual predator priests with as much vigor and resources.

The president has weighed the issue from all sides and come to a rational decision, and the most realistic one based on how America’s Catholics actually live, and not how they are supposed to. He deserves our praise, not our condemnation.