For the Catholic Church in the United States, the re-election of Barack Obama as president means serious trouble ahead – in fact, nothing less than an accelerating two-pronged crisis.
The first prong of the crisis is that Obama is expected to press policies favoring abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage even more aggressively and coercively in his second term than in his first.
The second prong is reflected in the fact that, according to CNN exit polls, 50 percent of the Catholics who voted backed Obama despite his well-publicized conflict with their Church, with 48 percent going for Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Further analysis of the poll data is expected to produce the usual, predictable finding that Catholics who attend Mass regularly are substantially more likely to stand with the Church than Catholics who don't.
Future of mandate
In any case, Obama's re-election leaves him at liberty to move ahead with enforcing the famous Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring Church-related institutions like colleges and universities, charities, and hospitals to provide abortifacient drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations via their employee health care plans.
The mandate, part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act – otherwise known as Obamacare – is scheduled to go into effect for Church institutions Aug. 1, 2013. Cumulatively huge fines will be imposed on those that fail to comply.
Obama in the past has said he would provide some form of "accommodation" to religious groups who object to the mandate on moral grounds. But he hasn't done that yet, and even if he does, the affected institutions still face the prospect of having the employer-employee relationship serve as a vehicle for things the Church judges immoral.
Only the possibility of action by one or more courts staying the administration's hand now seems capable of preventing this grim scenario for the Church from coming to pass. Some 30 lawsuits brought by dioceses and Catholic and non-Catholic institutions against the HHS mandate are currently pending in courts around the country.
Obama's second term also brings the likelihood that he'll have the opportunity of nominating one or more new justices for the Supreme Court in place of current members who leave. Obama almost certainly will select reliably liberal figures like the two of his first term – Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
If so, that could shift the balance of power on the now-divided court to the left for years to come. The impact of cases involving abortion and same-sex marriage – as well as the HHS mandate, when and if a case on that matter comes before the court – is potentially enormous.
Some observers also predict that the president in his second term will seek to expand the reach of Obamacare by regulation to include mandatory coverage for abortions and perhaps even procedures like in vitro fertilization.
Also possible is an attempt to revive efforts to enact legislation known as the Freedom of Choice Act. Long sought by the abortion lobby that supported Obama's re-election, FOCA would have the effect of making permissive abortion the law of the land, overriding restrictions on abortion put in place by individual states.
In the face of this and similar second term initiatives, the legislative firewall for the Church in Obama's second term remains the House of Representatives, where Republicans remain in the majority. Democrats retained and strengthened their control of the Senate.
Setbacks for bishops
From the Church's point of view, the apparent 50 percent-48 percent split in the Catholic vote between Obama and Romney actually marks an improvement over 2008, when 54 percent of the Catholics favored Obama over Sen. John McCain.
But the outcome is a bitter setback for Church leadership even so, considering that a number of bishops made pre-election statements saying or strongly implying that a Catholic could not vote in conscience for a pro-abortion candidate like Obama.
Along which much else, the result also is a blow to the bishops' religious liberty campaign, which was launched last year with the aim of focusing attention on threats to the First Amendment rights of religious institutions as well as the right of the Church to have a voice on matters of public policy.
The campaign presumably will continue, but the Church's ability to withstand a re-energized secularist assault on its institutions by a newly re-elected president and his administration and allies appears in doubt.
Among the lessons of 2012 is that election year statements by bishops that seem to favor one candidate over another probably don't do much good and may in fact do harm to the Church's interests by alienating people.
What's needed instead appears to be a long-term, well prepared, continuing program of education and public information, carried out under Church auspices and focusing on the content of Catholic moral teaching and its application to public life.
The bishops are expected to discuss these matters in executive session next week during their all general meeting in Baltimore. If they do, they will have plenty to talk about.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.