In Obama-Catholic Church Relations, the Rift Is Between the Church and Its American Followers

The controversy over Obama at Notre Dame shows gap between the Catholic Church and its American flock.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

When it comes to the Obama administration's relations with the Roman Catholic Church, the real political rift isn't between the bishops and the president. It's between the church and its American flock.

That's the gist of my most recent God & Country column for U.S. News Weekly , just posted for all to see at usnews.com. Here's the top.

News that President Barack Obama will deliver this year's commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, a prestigious Roman Catholic institution, has triggered denunciations from at least nine American bishops. They oppose lending a platform to a politician who rejects the church's firm antiabortion stance. "Notre Dame didn't understand what it means to be Catholic when they issued this invitation," Cardinal Francis George, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told a crowd of antiabortion advocates last weekend.

And yet Notre Dame's students appear to strongly back the university's invitation to Obama. The campus newspaper reports that 97 percent of the letters that have come in on the subject from graduating seniors are supportive.

It's just the latest example of the rift between the Catholic Church hierarchy and its American flock on a political matter. When President Obama lifted restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research last month, the bishops conference, the organizational body for American bishops, condemned the move as a "sad victory of politics over science and ethics." But an analysis this week by Gallup found that 63 percent of American Catholics consider embryonic stem cell research to be morally acceptable.

Indeed, as the bishops conference issues new critiques of the Obama administration on an almost weekly basis, it can be easy to forget that most American Catholics backed Obama at the polls last November. They supported him by 54 percent to 45 percent, a reversal from 2004, when more voted for George W. Bush than for John Kerry, a Catholic. Forty percent of Catholics with the most orthodox beliefs backed Obama, a 100 percent increase from Kerry's showing among those voters.

As U.S. bishops are becoming more emboldened in speaking out, they are spotlighting more than the differences between the church and the Democratic Party on key political issues. Increasingly, they are pointing out the differences between the church and its own American followers. "We have had a de facto schism in the church for the last generation," says Catholic League President Bill Donohue, an outspoken critic of Notre Dame's invitation to Obama and, generally speaking, of the Democrats. "The issue being forced upon the bishops is: What are they going to do to get their house in order?"

Read the full thing here.