Archbishop Timothy Dolan (AP Photo)

Sarah Palin saw this coming all along.

Back in 2009, Palin was all fired up about Notre Dame University’s decision to invite President Obama – pro-choice on abortion – to speak at its graduation ceremonies. Many – not just Palin – shuddered at the thought of such a president speaking at what is arguably America’s most famous Catholic institution.

"My favorite grandpa, Clem James Sheeran, was Catholic. Irish to the core,” Palin was quoted as saying back in 2009.

“His favorite place (other than church) was Notre Dame. I can't imagine what he would think as the university recognizes someone who contradicts the core values of the Catholic faith by promoting an anti-life agenda."

And now we have another brouhaha over Obama and Catholicism. A few weeks back, the Obama administration unveiled plans that would have compelled Catholic institutions to provide contraception to employees. There was a compromise offered on Friday, though the damage to Obama has largely been done.

Thunderous objections have followed, though they were quite understandable. By all accounts, Obama had been warned by Irish Catholic members of his inner circle – including Vice President Joe Biden and former Chief of Staff Bill Daley – that requiring Catholic institutions to provide coverage contrary to their teaching would start a holy war.

And boy did it.

It played to the right wing belief that Obama – and really, most Democrats – are anti-religious.

Former George W. Bush speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson said the edict was “delivered with a sneer,” and added that this was “the most transparently anti-Catholic maneuver by the federal government since the Blaine Amendment was proposed in 1875, a measure designed to diminish public tolerance of Romanism, then regarded as foreign, authoritarian and illiberal.”

Newt Gingrich charged that "the Obama administration is engaged in a war against religion." Mitt Romney declared this "a direct attack on religious liberty."

No doubt that this was a boneheaded move by Obama. Then again, now that this issue has become a political football, it’s easy to forget a few things.

First of all, the vast majority of Irish Americans and other Catholics are quite liberal when it comes to contraception.

In fact, as The New York Times noted this week, “Although Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York has vociferously argued that a national requirement for religiously affiliated institutions to cover birth control in their insurance plans is immoral and unacceptable, some Roman Catholic organizations in his own backyard have for 10 years been grudgingly complying with a state law making  them do precisely that.”

Manhattan College and Fordham University are among the Catholic institutions that offer contraception as part of their health care packages.

And yet, the fact is, after years of backpedaling because of horrific sex abuse allegations, church leaders were actually able to take the moral high ground on this issue.

The biggest winner here seems to be New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan. He has emerged as an outspoken and legitimate defender of religious values.

This is a role Dolan’s predecessor, Edward Cardinal Egan, never seemed to grow into. If Dolan manages to maintain this position, he could recall the more vigorous days of John Cardinal O’Connor.

This comes just as Dolan is elevated to cardinal this Saturday. So swift and significant has Dolan’s other elevation – to significant public voice – been that the New York Daily News actually ran a long analysis outlining the circumstances under which Dolan could someday become the first American pope.

This sounds more or less absurd to me. The U.S. has enough influence on the world stage without also ruling over the Vatican.

And yet, this mere discussion is an indication of how well Dolan has managed to articulate a certain moral message, all the while retaining his gregarious, even fun-loving side.

How will this all effect Catholic voters come November?

If only we could ask Sarah Palin’s grandfather.

(Contact “Sidewalks” at [email protected] or