The bishops’ tougher response to the Obama ‘compromise’ mandate

From Catholic Culture:

After an initial muted reaction to President Obama’s proposed “accommodation,” the leaders of the US bishops’ conference have released a second, stronger statement, declaring that the mandate for contraceptive coverage in health-care programs remains “unacceptable and must be corrected.”

On Friday evening, February 10—several hours after President Obama unveiled his “compromise” proposal—the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released an official statement signed by five leading prelates. The bishops said that the revised plan “continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions.”

That clear statement of opposition contrasted with an earlier response from the USCCB, in which Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York had described the revised plan as “a first step in the right direction.” While that initial reaction was ambiguous, the bishops’ 2nd statement left no doubt that the USCCB would continue to oppose the Obama mandate.

Unfortunately, before the bishops released their second statement, leaders of two of the largest Catholic employers in the country—the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities USA–had released their own statements indicating that they were satisfied with the Obama administration’s “compromise” proposal. So while the political battle continues, the Catholic forces are already split.

In a perceptive analysis of the political debate, reporter Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times said that in its decision to amend the original HHS mandate, the Obama administration was “never really driven by a desire to mollify Roman Catholic bishops, who were strongly opposed to the plan.” She explained:

Rather, the fight was for Sister Carol Keehan–head of an influential Catholic hospital group, who had supported President Obama’s health care law–and Catholic allies of the White House seen as the religious left. Sister Keehan had told the White House that the new rule, part of the health care law, went too far.

Now that Sister Keehan has endorsed the Obama “compromise” (along with Father Larry Snyder of Catholic Charities USA), the Obama administration can claim that many Catholics, including some who had originally opposed the plan, now see the wisdom of his ways. President Obama does not intend to persuade the American bishops to support his proposal; he intends to siphon off support for the bishops among American Catholic voters, driving a political wedge further into the country’s Catholic community.

Isn’t this always the technique that subtle politicians use to attack the power of the Catholic Church? King Henry VIII set himself up as supreme ruler of the Church in England, superior to the bishops; the Chinese Communist regime urges the faithful to take their guidance from the Catholic Patriotic Association rather than the stubborn bishops of the “underground” Church; the Chavez regime in Venezuela boasts that the “people’s Church” supports the president even while the bishops warn against the dangerous expansion of his powers. Only rarely do brutal tyrants attempt a frontal assault; much more frequently, Machiavellian leaders attempt to draw invidious comparisons between the “unreasonable” bishops who cling to traditional Catholic teaching and the more accommodating Catholics—never in short supply—who will accept the authority of the state.

In their later statement, USCCB leaders reveal that they were not consulted in advance about President Obama’s proposed “accommodation.” The bishops who have been most heavily involved in this battle apparently now recognize that they are unlikely to reach an agreement with the White House. In their official statement, they said:

We will therefore continue—with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency—our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government.[emphasis added]

Still, despite its clear rejection of the proffered compromise, the bishops’ second statement left the door open to the possibility that some future compromise could secure their acquiescence. Their statement said that the proposal required further study and “careful moral analysis,” and said that the compromise plans presented at the White House on February 10 “appear subject to some measure of change.” These measured words might give some readers the impression that the bishops are hoping to amend the Obama proposal, rather than to defeat it.

Indeed even in their final call to action, when the bishops say that they hope to “correct this problem,” they do not issue a clear call for the rejection of the administration’s proposal and/or the removal of those elected officials who have devised and supported it. Perhaps fearful of being caught up in partisan politics, the bishops shrink from drawing the obvious conclusion from this revealing episode: that the Obama administration is contemptuous of religious freedom and determined to undermine the authority of the Catholic hierarchy.

President Obama, on the other hand, is not averse to a political battle with the bishops. And if he is willing to risk a direct confrontation with the bishops in this, an election year, one can only imagine how blithely he would ride roughshod over Catholic protests during a second presidential term, when he would not need to worry about re-election!

Were the leaders of the USCCB fully conscious of the political challenges that now face them? Thanks to the reporting work of Rocco Palmo, we now have some insight into their thinking. Palmo obtained and posted a confidential memo to the members of the USCCB, outlining the thoughts behind the second official statement from the bishops’ conference.

(The confidential memo, like the second statement from the USCCB on the revised mandate, was signed by Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the president of the bishops’ conference, and by four bishops who chair committees within the USCCB: Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the pro-life committee, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the doctrinal committee, Bishop Stephen Blaire of the domestic-policy committee, and Bishop William Lori of the religious liberty committee.)

The bishops’ memo reiterated the main objections to the Obama mandate, and stressed that some questions—such as the effects on institutions that self-insure—remain unclear. They also raised a question that had not yet figured prominently in USCCB statements, regarding the effect of the mandate on non-religious employers. Although the bishops have devoted their attention to the moral crisis that would face Church-run organizations required by law to furnish contraceptives for their employees, the same crisis already faces Catholic individuals (or others morally opposed to contraception) working at secular firms. A Catholic nun running a charitable agency might qualify for some degree of exemption from the Obama mandate; a Catholic layman running a manufacturing firm would not. “This presents a grave moral problem to be addressed,” the USCCB leaders reminded their brother bishops. That brief mention of the problem is a welcome reminder that Church leaders have a duty not only to secure the rights not only of Church-related institutions, but of all the faithful. This idea was explained by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1992:

Where a matter of the common good is concerned, it is inappropriate for Church authorities to endorse or remain neutral toward adverse legislation even if it grants exceptions to Church organizations and institutions. The Church has the responsibility to promote family life and the public morality of the entire civil society on the basis of fundamental moral values, not simply to protect herself from the application of harmful laws.

It will be interesting to see whether the recognition of this duty, now mentioned in an internal memo, becomes evident in the American bishops’ public statements.

In their memo the five bishops who are leading the debate outlined three main principles driving their strategy. The first was a commitment to protect religious liberty, and the third was a determination to oppose a wider use of contraception, sterilization, and the use of abortifacient drugs. But in light of the analysis above, the bishops’ middle point is most interesting:

Second, it is the place of the Church, not of government to define its religious identity and ministry.

So the USCCB leaders recognize the thrust of the Obama administration’s political offensive. They realize that the White House has set out to divide and conquer, to separate the Catholic laity from their bishops. Now surely they see that when groups like the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities USA side with the Obama administration, they are contributing to the erosion of the bishops’ authority and the splintering of the Church. So this is not merely an important political battle; it is a critical test of the bishops’ overall authority.

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