Catholics divided over Cardinal Dolan’s GOP convention appearance

From the moment the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reneged on its promise to exempt religious employers from complying with the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, a war has been brewing between the Roman Catholic Church and the Obama administration. At the war’s center is Cardinal Timothy Dolan from the Archdiocese of New York.

At the Republican National Committee’s invitation, Dolan will deliver a benediction at next week’s convention in Tampa, further stirring the pot and creating yet another holy war. But instead of a battle between church and state, this fight is between conservatives and liberals.

Conservatives are ecstatic.

“I now predict that if Mitt Romney wins the White House in 2012 there will be a very healthy relationship between a Romney administration and the U.S. Bishops, led by a close working relationship between Cardinal Dolan and President Romney,” CatholicVote.org’s Thomas Peters wrote in a recent column.

The reactions of liberal Catholic observers range from caution to alarm that the church is becoming too political, as evidenced by an editorial in Friday’s National Catholic Reporter.

“Dolan is playing an old game, but an increasingly dangerous one, as well,” the editorial stated. “In accepting the invitation to this year’s Republican convention, where religion has been elevated to a major supporting role, Dolan is dragging the church and its invaluable swing voters into the midst of the fray, simultaneously allowing religion to be used as a tool of division.”

“Swing voters” — therein lies the rub. Catholics make up about one-fourth of the electorate. Although they don’t generally vote as a bloc, very often, the candidate who wins over the Catholics wins election. Four years ago, President Obama captured 54 percent of the Catholic vote. Four years before that, George W. Bush took 52 percent.

According to the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Landsberg, one other point needs to be factored into the equation:

“Dolan also is no fan of President Obama’s, and has been at the forefront of Catholic opposition to rules promulgated by Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services that will require some religious institutions — including Catholic schools and hospitals — to provide free contraceptive services to their employees. Dolan sued the administration over the rule, and has generally played hardball in his rhetoric about Obama. In an interview with the Associated Press earlier this year, the cardinal said he wanted to take Obama at his word when the president said he would work with religious institutions to fine-tune the mandate, but ‘I do have to say it’s getting harder and harder.'”

Cardinal Dolan is unquestionably the most recognizable Catholic prelate in America, and that stature, combined with the fact that he and Mitt Romney share the same values on religious freedom, makes his role at the convention a natural fit. It’s also a total in-your-face statement to the current president.

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