Conservative Catholics complain that too many liberal Catholics instinctively greet every statement from the Vatican with suspicion, skepticism, or derision. It’s a fair point. The motives and judgment of those who appear unthinkingly hostile to all hierarchical authority should be questioned. Patient attention to the legitimate concerns of others and the presumption of goodwill on the part of those we disagree with are essential virtues.

Unfortunately, patience and the presumption of goodwill were not much in evidence in the response of the U.S. bishops and many conservative Catholics to President Barack Obama’s compromise on the question of mandated contraceptive coverage for employees of religious-affiliated institutions. Even before all the details of the president’s proposal were known, the bishops rejected it and then upped the ante by insisting that the only possible solution was to repeal the mandate altogether. In other words, the bishops are now demanding that no employer be required to offer free contraception coverage to its employees. To justify their response, they offered only the most tendentious reading of the possible flaws in Obama’s proposal. Now the USCCB is threatening a concerted political and public-relations campaign—during an election year—that casts the president as a determined enemy of religious freedom.

What is going on here? Is the question of contraception coverage—something most American Catholics already have, and which the bishops have said almost nothing about before now—really where the hierarchy wants to issue a non-negotiable edict? Why were they not this vocal in their opposition to the Bush administration’s use of torture? Has the USCCB thought through how these demands are likely to undermine the church’s much more important effort to change hearts and minds about abortion? Or how they will further divide Catholics?

The Catholic community was largely united in its rejection of Obama’s initial failure to exempt religious-affiliated institutions from the contraception mandate (see “An Illiberal Mandate” and "Bad Decision"). Many of the Catholic leaders who led that protest, such as Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, and the presidents of various Catholic colleges and universities, are guardedly optimistic about the new mandate. Ideally, the administration would have simply broadened the original religious exemption. Nevertheless, the new plan, which requires insurance companies, rather than Catholic institutions, to cover the cost of contraceptives, is a welcome development. The details of how this will work are not entirely clear. One particular difficulty has to do with Catholic institutions that self-fund their health plans. Administration officials have expressed confidence that some workaround will be found that will prevent these institutions from directly paying for contraception coverage. This is a complicated legal and administrative matter, and a degree of caution, even skepticism, is warranted. What is not warranted is the USCCB’s demand that the contraceptive mandate be done away with entirely. This is a novel interpretation of the First Amendment, and one that will almost certainly be rejected by the courts. It is also a political gift to abortion-rights groups, who will use it to make the case that the church’s opposition to abortion is motivated by a larger disregard for the health of women. Republicans have already seized on the controversy, hoping to use it as a wedge issue in the presidential race. None of these developments will be good for the church or the nation.

The fact that many Catholic institutions already comply with state laws requiring contraception coverage makes the USCCB’s extreme demands all the more curious. For Catholic institutions to participate in insurance plans where individuals may decide to use contraception is at most remote cooperation with what the church considers evil. It is implausible for the bishops to insist that the revised mandate compels them to cooperate directly in a sinful activity when even the original mandate did nothing of the kind.

So, why are the bishops reacting in this way? Are all the bishops comfortable with the USCCB’s rhetoric? Will any bishop publicly express reservations or skepticism about this strategy? Are the bishops not worried that this initiative will be seen as transparently partisan by much of the public?

In their 2010 book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David Campbell showed what the likely consequences of this fight will be. By the 1990s, after decades of the culture wars waged by Protestant and Catholic groups, many younger people came to think of “religion” as politically divisive and overly judgmental, especially on questions of sexual morality. As a result, the number of Americans who have abandoned institutional religion has risen dramatically. One-third of adult Catholics have already left the church. Isn’t that sobering fact more deserving of a national campaign than this self-defeating battle over contraception coverage?

For more coverage of this issue at dotCommonweal, click here.

Published in the 2012-03-09 issue: 
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