This represents a breakthrough in the long-simmering animosity between conservative and liberal Catholics over how much the church should have changed in the wake of Vatican II. Besides contraception, practiced (according to polls) by more than 90% of sexually active Catholics despite the church’s prohibition, the issues that divide the two groups include divorce (the church forbids it, but liberals argue that the prohibition is unrealistic in today’s world), same-sex unions, the power of the papacy and admitting women to the all-male priesthood. When the clerical sex-abuse scandals surfaced in 2002, conservative Catholics blamed a woozy post-Vatican II mind-set that signaled that anything was permissible, while liberals pointed the finger at a hidebound hierarchy desirous of sweeping unpleasant truths under the rug.

But the issue of the government’s effort to curtail the freedom of religious institutions to conduct operations according to their moral principles seems to have galvanized a tenuous alliance between the Catholic left and the Catholic right. Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the ultra-progressive newspaper the National Catholic Reporter, declared that Obama had “lost my vote” after the rule was issued. He wrote: “[T]he president’s decision … essentially told us, as Catholics, that there is no room in this great country of ours for the institutions our church has built over the years.”…

Part of the reason for liberal Catholics’ vehemence was their disappointment with Obama. Many liberal Catholics had defied the condemnation of their bishops to support the president’s healthcare legislation of 2010, which did not explicitly bar federal funding for abortions. One of the Obama-supporting liberals was Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Assn., an association of Catholic hospitals. Keehan’s tireless advocacy on behalf of the law helped persuade antiabortion House Democrats to sign on to the Senate-drafted bill that eventually became law. In a recent statement on behalf of the association, she sounded shocked. “The impact of being told we do not fit the new definition of a religious employer and therefore cannot operate our ministries following our consciences has jolted us,” she wrote.