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Obama Administration, Vatican Clash Over Abortion

While President Obama's special envoy tries to broker peace in the Middle East and the White House dangles an olive branch before a near-nuclear Iran, a new foreign policy confrontation is in the making -- with the Vatican.

After he ended a ban last week on federal funding to international groups that perform or promote abortions, Obama is taking heat from the Roman Catholic Church, that political powerhouse based overseas.

Vatican officials said last weekend that they were disappointed by the president's decision to reverse the so-called Mexico City policy.

"Among the many good things that he could have done, Barack Obama instead chose the worst," said Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, a top official with the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life.

"If this is one of President Obama's first acts, I have to say, in all due respect, that we're heading quickly toward disappointment," said Monsignor Rino Fisichella, who heads the Academy. 

And abortion isn't the only issue on which the new president may rile the Vatican. His positions on stem cell research, gay rights and faith-based initiatives, too, are generally at odds with the church hierarchy.

How this will affect Obama's appeal to Catholic voters remains to be seen. According to exit polls, the president got 53 percent of the Catholic vote in November -- 13 percent more than John Kerry, a Catholic, got in 2004.  

"I don't think President Obama is looking for a fight but I think he's certainly going to get one as he wiggles away from issues that are very important to the church," said the Very Rev. David O'Connell, president of the Catholic University of America.

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the secretariat of pro-life activities for the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops, said the biggest fight will come over abortion.

"I would say the pro-life issue is the issue which we're most likely to come into direct conflict on," he said.

Obama isn't the first president to feel the wrath of the Vatican. Pope John Paul II held President Clinton's feet to the fire over embryonic stem cell research. And both he and Pope Benedict XVI castigated President Bush for America's pre-emptive war in Iraq. But observers say the Vatican's recent criticism of Obama appears to be more intense.

"My impression is they've gotten more militant and assertive on the life issue, where they're more willing to say we're not just going to state our position and look the other way," said Richard Esenberg, a law professor at Marquette University whose expertise includes religion. He noted that Catholic politicians have been excommunicated in recent years for not supporting positions consistent with the church's teachings.

It is clear that Obama's dispute with the church over abortion will extend beyond his reversal of the Mexico City.

The church is coordinating a national postcard campaign to oppose the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), a bill that could wipe out federal and state restrictions on abortion, including parental notification and informed consent laws. Some argue that FOCA is so broad it could eliminate "conscience clauses" that protect hospitals and doctors who refuse to perform abortions because of their beliefs.

"I think the Freedom of Choice Act is going to be a major bone of contention between not only the Catholic church and Obama, but also Evangelicals," Esenberg said. "The right-to-life movement will be extremely energized by FOCA."

Esenberg said stem cell research could be another contentious issue, although not as much as it was a couple of years ago because of scientific advances that made adult stem cells as versatile as embryonic ones.

As for gay rights, Obama has clearly stated that he is against same-sex marriage, but Esenberg said that is not the same as "expending political capital to oppose" it.

"If something happens which forces his hand, then he has a more difficult problem," he said. "He has powerful and influential constituencies that want him to stay his hand. I'm not convinced that it won't be a bone of contention."

But it's unclear whether criticism from Catholic leaders will hurt Obama among Catholic voters.

O'Connell said every Catholic he's spoken to in recent days has expressed disappointment in Obama for reversing the Mexico City policy, and Catholic voters wonder if FOCA will be passed into law.

"I'm sure for many Catholics who supported Obama because they believed in his words to do everything he could to reduce abortions, this comes as a disappointment, and even a betrayal to some," he said.

O'Connell said Obama shouldn't take the Catholic opposition personally.

"The church holds these issues as very significant and very consequential and the church is going after the president, not because he's the president or because it's the United States, but because it believes any government system that support issues that are contrary to its core beliefs are dangerous," he said. "Because the beliefs are rooted in good for all of humanity, not just the Catholic Church."

Doerflinger said that his organization takes a positive attitude with any new administration.

"We'll be working the administration wherever we can," he said, echoing the sentiment of Cardinal Francis George, president of the organization, "and raising a candid protest when we must."

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