05/16/2012 08:15 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

United States Catholics: A Church Divided

About 30 years ago, while employed as a very young elementary school teacher in a Catholic school in poor parish school in the Bronx, I was riding in a car with four other faculty members, three of them nuns. At one point our conversation turned to a child in my class. The boy had a few siblings in the school, an extremely young mother and no father in the home. "Doesn't she know about the pill?" one of the nuns exclaimed. This exasperated nun was well over 60 years of age at the time and was, by any other measure, a nun I'd describe as "old school." It shocked me that the same nun who required seventh and eighth graders to kneel for the hemline length test (for Catholic skirts) would say such a thing.

In the 30 years that have elapsed, I've observed over and over again how such departures from Roman Catholic doctrine (It is not just nuns either; I more often observe it in priests) are not unusual. It comes as no surprise to me that our Vice President should be in favor of same-sex marriage, that Georgetown would contract Kathleen Sebelius to address its community, that Andrew Cuomo should sign off on same-sex marriage. So rogue are most Roman Catholics when it comes to papal teaching, that Catholic dissidence often seems the norm. When a discerning Catholic breaks with doctrine, it is generally seeking acting accordance with his or her conscience, which, according to Ratzinger's own words, "has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority." ( "Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II", ed. Vorgrimler, 1968, on Gaudium et spes, Part 1, Chapter 1.)

Some confusion surrounded the question of whether Catholic Charities' supported the passing of ObamaCare in the immediate aftermath of the ruling on the plan structured by (Roman Catholic) Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius. Catholic Charities first appeared to support the plan, but later claimed otherwise. (Catholic Charities, which is affiliated with, but not run by the Roman Catholic Church, helps to feed, shelter, educate, employ and otherwise support the indigent and disabled throughout the U.S.) My experience in Roman Catholic Social Justice ministry tells me speculating about this is silly. Even if Catholic Charities does support Obama's plan, there's nothing to be gained by announcing it. As it does in so many areas of Roman Catholic practice and ministry, in this instance, "don't ask don't tell" applies.

In her Feb. 16 piece in Mother Jones, "What War on Religion?" Stephanie Menciner demonstrates not only that Barack Obama is not religion-averse, but that he has conducted himself as a president who very much trusts and values faith-based programs:

But all the outrage about religious freedom has overshadowed a basic truth about the Obama administration: When it comes to religious organizations and their treatment by the federal government, the Obama administration has been extremely generous. Religious groups have benefited handsomely from Obama's stimulus package, budgets, and other policies. ... The USCCB, which has been such a vocal critic of the Obama administration, has seen its share of federal grants from HHS jump from $71.8 million in the last three years of the Bush administration to $81.2 million during the first three years of Obama. In fiscal 2011 alone, the group received a record $31.4 million from the administration it believes is virulently anti-Catholic, according to HHS data.

Obama has put more confidence and funding into faith-based programs than his predecessor did. He went to significant lengths to hear and compromise with the bishops in the context of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Even if Obama were to do an about-face on contraception, abortion and "gay marriage," he wouldn't win much new support among conservative Catholics because the small percentage of Roman Catholics who oppose contraception are, to a great extent, the same conservative, Republican Catholics who don't want a black man in the Oval Office.

Read 'United States Catholics: A Church Divided' in its entirety on Indie Theology.