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Unjustified, by just-war standards

Now featured on the homepage: George Hunsinger evaluates the proposed attack on Syria by the criteria of just war--and finds it wanting.

How should U.S. citizens and their elected representatives decide this dreadful question? A defensible case for the attack on Syria would have to satisfy traditional “just war” standards. In its modern form the just-war tradition (jus ad bellum) involves at least four primary elements: just cause, legitimate authority, last resort, and reasonable chance of success. If these criteria remain unmet, the recourse to war is unjustified.

In my view, the proposed attack on Syria meets none of these standards. Let us review them in order.

Read the whole thing here.

Catholic commentary round-up on proposed attack in Syria

The past few days have seen a burst of commentary from Catholic writers about the proposed attack in Syria. This blog has featured a lot, and the current issue of the magazine has Gabriel Said Reynolds's essential short take. A few other items of note, and feel free to add more in the comments:

Maryann Cusimano Love on the "just war" question in the Huffington Post

Drew Christiansen, S.J., on the role of prayer in Washington Post "On Faith"

Tobias Winright on "just war" analysis in The Tablet and Catholic Moral Theology

R. R. Reno on "symbolic killing" in First Things

The USCCB's letter to President Obama

E. J. Dionne's column in praise of democracy, today in the Washington Post

Michael Sean Winters taking the liberal interventionist route in National Catholic Reporter

And, of course, the Pope has been leading the way from last week's Angelus to his letter to President Putin to his forceful social media activism, about which I wrote a short piece in the Washington Post's "On Faith" section. My take-home point was: "Prayerful, prophetic denunciation of war is one papal tradition that the reform-minded Francis will not be changing."

Elizabeth Tenety offered a round-up of some of these critiques from the commentariat, and then posed the question of whether all the Catholics in political power in the United States are listening.

Are they???

Finally, if you're in the New York area, I'm sure the Pope's out-front anti-war message will become a topic of conversation at our Fordham panel about Pope Francis on Mon, Sept 9, at Lincoln Center campus.  Info and RSVP HERE.

Conflict & the persistence of ‘credibility’ as justification

Oakley Hall’s 1958 novel Warlock is a western in the way The Godfather is a crime novel or The Road a piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, which is to say it belongs to its genre but also subverts it. The novel harnesses familiar ideas—in this case, violence, honor, and the limits of law—for fictional storytelling, while examining how they can influence, direct, and legitimize cultural, personal, and political activity in the real world.

It’s no Zane Grey, as Robert Stone—whose own work takes up questions of violence and political conflict—acknowledges in his introduction to the 2006 reissue of Warlock, which in its depiction of duels, massacres, vendettas, and assassinations reveals how deadly force so often springs from nothing more than a desire to project credibility. The characters in Warlock aren’t necessarily interested in killing one another; they’re worried what people will think if they don’t—whether it’s avenging this murder or that insult, or preemptively eliminating a perceived enemy, even when the lack of clear evidence would seem to demand restraint. Protecting one’s reputation proves a poor justification for violence, Hall makes clear in Warlock, even while (or by) acknowledging that his characters have no real choice but to act as if it’s the best one.

But that’s a novel, and Hall’s thematic intent precludes epiphanies of self-awareness and the throwing down of guns. Real-world actors operate under no such constraints, though, and so credibility would seem an even worse excuse in this realm, especially when it comes to war. Yet there were John McCain and Lindsey Graham on Monday using the word again, a couple of days after Barack Obama—sidling up to it himself because of his own unforced error with the rhetoric of red lines—brought Congress into the decision-making on Syria. (Tuesday, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, John Boehner and Eric Cantor employed its go-to variation: inaction will “embolden other regimes.”

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Mercer has twice made the case against using credibility as a cri de guerre—first in May, and then again last week to reflect developments since evidence of the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians came to light.

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Now on our homepage

Two new stories now featured on our homepage.

First, the editors on reading the mission statement of Matt Malone, SJ, editor of America, about the challenges facing his magazine and the Catholic media at large. A pressing concern of Malone’s is

what he perceives to be the destructive influence of secular political ideology on Catholic unity. “We view ideology as largely inimical to Christian discipleship,” he writes, arguing that “our secular, civic a mortal threat to the ecclesiastical discourse.” In an effort to combat this “factionalism,” America will no longer allow writers to use the terms “liberal,” “conservative,” or “moderate” “when referring to our fellow Catholics in an ecclesiastical context.” That editorial experiment will bear watching.

Factionalism can indeed be a threat to the church (or to the country), but honest disagreement is not always destructive of ecclesial communion; in fact, it is often constitutive of it. As John Courtney Murray, SJ, once wrote, “disagreement is a rare achievement, and most of what is called disagreement is simply confusion.” Paul took on Peter in the most direct way on the question of whether the promises of Christ could be extended to the uncircumcised. The church as we know it would not exist but for that bit of factionalism. The number of such disagreements throughout the church’s history is hard to exaggerate. In fact, church unity is more often threatened when not enough room is made for the airing and resolution of honest disagreement. Nor does it do any good to pretend that the contemporary church is actually a community of harmony and virtue simply because ideally it should be. American Catholics belong to the church, but also to many other communities and organizations. They cannot, and should not, leave those attachments behind at the church door, nor should they regard their political commitments as peripheral to their Christian witness. Quite the contrary. For example, while America’s mission statement confesses a “bias” for the “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable,” it asserts that the poor have no “special parties to speak for them.” Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that all parties speak for the poor equally, or equally well.

Read the whole thing here.

Also featured now, E. J. Dionne Jr. and the position President Obama finds himself in on Syria:

[I]f Obama wanted to shift our foreign policy away from the Middle East, the Middle East had other ideas. Even before the latest reports that Syria’s government had used chemical weapons against its own people, the military’s takeover in Egypt, following abuses by the Muslim Brotherhood government, blew up the administration’s hopes for a gradual movement there toward more democratic rule.

Now, the president’s own unambiguous red line against the regime’s use of chemical weapons and his statements declaring that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad should be ousted leave him little choice but to take military action. This is the conclusion Obama has drawn, however uneasy he has been about intervening in the Syrian civil war. He no longer has the option of standing aside.

The result is an agonizing set of questions and potential contradictions. Can military strikes of any kind be the sort of “narrow” or -- and this has always been a strange word for war -- “surgical” intervention that does not drag the United States deeply into the conflict? Yet if the strikes are limited enough so as not to endanger Assad’s regime, is the Syrian leader then in a position to pronounce his survival a form of victory against the United States and its allies? Does Obama really want to get the U.S. involved, however tangentially, in a new Middle Eastern war without a debate in Congress and some explicit form of congressional approval?

Read it all here.

Robert N. Bellah, in writing

Now on the website, a special package of Commonweal articles from sociologist of religion Robert N. Bellah, who died at the end of July. Bellah was a contributor to the magazine since the early 1980s, writing on such subjects as the changing nature of the relationship between religion and power; American economic competitiveness and the pastoral letter Economic Justice for All; and the implications of "the Bush doctrine." You can find it here.

New stories on the homepage

Two new stories on the Commonweal homepage today.

With “The First Encyclical of Francis?” William L. Portier wraps up our look at Lumen fidei (previous takes from Robin Darling Young here and Dennis O’Brien here). From Portier’s piece:

Much here is as familiarly engaging as Benedict’s talks at Wednesday audiences. Clearly Chapters 2 and 3 represent a big chunk of the first draft of the encyclical on faith that Benedict was working on when he resigned.  And yet there are traces of that inclusively compassionate voice we have come to know over the past months as that of Pope Francis. It appears in the last paragraphs of the introduction which speak of Pope Benedict in the third person. Along with a quote from Dominus Iesus, resonances of it can also be heard in the second chapter’s last two paragraphs. Here is an example: “The more Christians immerse themselves in the circle of Christ’s light, the more capable they become of understanding and accompanying the path of every man and woman.” And another: “Anyone who sets off on the path of doing good to others is already drawing near to God, is already sustained by his help, for it is characteristic of the divine light to brighten our eyes whenever we walk toward the fullness of love.”  If these are not the ipsissima verba of Francis, they surely represent his ipsissima intentio. 

Read the whole thing here

In “The Painful Paradoxes of Race,” E. J. Dionne Jr. writes of his interview with Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and candidate for the state’s open Senate seat.

My interview with Booker didn’t start with the Zimmerman trial. Instead, the practically-minded mayor spoke enthusiastically about a program he had established in cooperation with the libertarian-conservative Manhattan Institute to help men released from prison become better fathers. “The right intervention,” he said, “can create radically different outcomes.”

Booker knows about crime. He described his experience of holding a young man who had just been shot, trying and failing to keep him from dying in his arms. He returned home disconsolate and washed off the young man’s blood.

His account, and Obama’s later words, put the lie to outrageous claims by right-wing talk jocks and provocateurs that those upset by the outcome in the Zimmerman trial are willfully ignoring the affliction of crime committed by African Americans against each other. On the contrary: African American leaders, particularly mayors such as Booker, were struggling to stem violence in their own communities long before it became a convenient topic for those trying to sweep aside the profound problems raised by the Martin case.

Read the whole thing here.

The Adnan Latif Report and Obama's Real Scandal

In the chilling anthology, Poems from Guantanamo, the following was penned by Adnan Latif:

They are artists of torture,
They are artists of pain and fatigue,
They are artists of insults and humiliation.

Where is the world to save us from torture?
Where is the world to save us from the fire and sadness?
Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?

Mr. Latif was the same age as me when he died. But he had spent over ten years imprisoned in Guantanamo. He was guilty of no crime or conspiracy to commit one, as was repeatedly found by every conceivable authority who examined the case. A summary of his time there can be found here. He was cleared for release as long ago as 2004. 

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IRS looked right, left, and in between

What’s to be made of the news that the IRS didn’t limit its screening of organizations applying for not-for-profit status to right-wing groups? For one thing, it may take some of the starch out of contentions by Peggy Noonan and others that the Obama administration specifically targeted political opponents or is now blighted by something worse than a mere “cancer on the presidency.” That the IRS also had on its list of watchwords such terms as “progressive” and “occupy”—and that pro-Obamacare advocacy groups were also swept up in the net—doesn’t quite hint at the vast left-wing conspiracy some seemed to be longing for.

On the other hand, that the IRS’s screening effort was apparently much broader than originally thought only adds fuel to the furor over government intrusiveness. Will tea party patriots now find common ground with ACA advocates? Or open-source software groups and proponents of electronic healthcare data exchange with those whose applications included the words “occupied territory advocacy” and "medical marijuana"? They were also singled out for secondary evaluation.

Congressional Democrats want to know why initial reports suggested that only right-wing groups were targeted, which (falsely, it would appear) imputed political motives to the IRS’s activities. Other groups want to know why there was a screening protocol at all—no matter how narrow, broad, prejudicial, nonpartisan, or as focused on software developers it was. Yes, “was”: On Monday, acting IRS commissioner Daniel I. Werfel formally ordered an immediate end to the screening effort.

As he likes it.

Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, has published another missive on Mirror of Justice, in which he, holder of a Harvard JD, a Harvard Divinity MTS, and an Oxford DPhil, writes, "some of our friends at Commonweal seem to have figured out that I mean to express contempt for the claim made by signers of 'On All of Our Shoulders.'" He continues:

If those responsible for the statement want serious intellectual engagement from those of us who do not share their views, they can put out a serious statement, free of tendentious claims and characterizations and laughable pretensions to non-partisanship. There are people among the signers of "On All of Our Shoulders" who are capable of writing such a statement. Let them do it. Then we'll have a serious discussion, if they like.

It was late when George, adviser to the campaign of Mitt Romney, posted, so perhaps he confused his friends at Commonweal with his friends a tAmerica, where Vincent Miller, one of the authors of "On All of Our Shoulders," yesterday posted a series of substantive questions for George. Yet, given George's ground rules, it seems unlikely that Miller will receive an answer. Unless he's prepared to sign a statement parroting the Romney campaign's Catholic talking points, as did George in his critique of "On All of Our Shoulders." Interesting ground rules for discussion.

RESOURCES: Robert P. George, "We're Only Concerned for the Integrity of the Teachings of the Catholic Church," Mirror of Justice. Robert P. George, "Exposed!" Mirror of Justice. Robert P. George, "The Catholic Left's Unfair Attack on Paul Ryan," First Things. Vincent Miller, "Unfair to Ryan? Questions for Robert George," In All Things. Grant Gallicho, "Tendentious Tendencies," dotCommonweal. "On All of Our Shoulders," 150-plus Catholic scholars and ministers." Catholics for Romney Coalition," Romney for President, Inc. Mitt Romney, "On the Issues for Catholics," Romney for President, Inc. [.pdf]

Robert P. George responds to my critique of his critique of 'On All of Our Shoulders.'

In its entirety [links added by me]:

Oh my. I'm in big trouble. My friend George Weigel tells me that Michael Winters at the National Catholic Reporter has declared (ex cathedra, I assume) that Grant Gallicho at Commonweal has "exposed" me for . . . sanctimony! (It was in my post criticizing the statement by Catholic liberals branding Paul Ryan as a Randian enemy of Catholic social thought.) Well, there it is. I have been exposed. The magisterium of liberal Catholicism has spoken. I am condemned. Woe is me. How does one stand up under an assault by such formidable personages? I mean, Michael Winters. And Grant Gallicho. Perhaps I should recant and throw myself on the mercy of the tribunal: Paul Ryan is a Randian enemy of Catholic social thought! Paul Ryan is a Randian enemy of Catholic social thought! Paul Ryan is a Randian enemy of Catholic social thought!

He really does want to dump old ladies in wheelchairs off cliffs. He really does want to dump old ladies in wheel chairs off cliffs! He really, really, really, really, does.As the Cowardly Lion said: "I do believe in spooks. I do believe in spooks. I do, I do, I do, I do believe in spooks."

Res ipsa loquitur.

Tendentious tendencies.

Well, that was quick. Forty-eight hours after the release of "On All of Our Shoulders" -- a critique of Paul Ryan's libertarian tendencies signed by about one hundred fifty Catholic scholars and ministers -- Robert P. George took to the First Things website to denounce it as a partisan "attack" on the congressman from Wisconsin, whose running mate, you may recall, George has endorsed and is advising. So he knows from partisanship. George also knows from courageously defending one's political opponents when they're unfairly criticized. Just ask him:

When my fellow conservatives and Republicans were beating up on President Obama for his you didnt build that remark, representing him as having claimed that business owners didnt build their own businesses, the government did it, I spoke out in defense of the President.... It is both wrong in itself and damaging to the spirit of democracy to misrepresent ones political opponents or interpret their words tendentiously to depict them in the most unfavorable possible light.

Do read his defense of Obama. Keep reading. Did you get to the third paragraph yet? You're looking for the sentence that follows the one with "Obama has a dangerously inflated view of the proper role of government." Find it yet? If you hit "this comment of mine is not intended as a defense of what Obama said, much less of his economic and regulatory policies generally," you've gone too far. Here's what it looks like: "I dont think it is correct to interpret the 'that' in 'you didnt build that' as referring to businesses." Thank goodness George managed to emerge from the avalanche of criticism he doubtless received for that stirring defense, so we could be reminded that the spirit of democracy is besmirched when we misrepresent our political opponent's views or interpret them tendentiously in order to cast them in the worst light. We would all do well to heed that advice. Too bad George doesn't.

Let's count the ways: George all but calls the signatories of "On All of Our Shoulders" liars for claiming that they do not write to oppose Ryans candidacy or to argue there are not legitimate reasons for Catholics to vote for him.

In fact, the statement is a highly tendentious assault on Ryan, presenting him and his positions in the most unfavorable possible light, and insinuating that he is someone who seeks to legitimate forms of social indifference. It is, in short, the discursive version of the infamous Democratic Party television advertisement showing a Ryan-like figure dumping an elderly lady out of her wheelchair over a cliff.

Speaking of tendentious. George is quite fond of referring to critiques of his positions as "assaults" and "attacks." But the statement in question is actually pretty mellow. Indeed, as George notes, the signatories are clear that they are not arguing that Catholics cannot have legitimate reasons for supporting the Romney-Ryan ticket. He just isn't buying it.

You can tell, because when Fordham theologian Charles Camosy, one of the signatories, responded to George in the comment thread, George called the intervention "an defend [the statement] as truly non-partisan and fair to Ryan, but res ipsa loquitur." That's Latin for "I don't believe you." Why mince words? If George thinks Camosy is lying, he should say so. Surely George didn't exhaust his store of courage defending Obama against those tendentious -- perhaps even partisan -- charges that he denied business-owners had built their own companies. Yet George couldn't be bothered to reply to Camosy in the comment thread on his own First Things piece. No, he hopped over to another outlet, Mirror of Justice, to post his retort -- where he disabled comments. So Camosy can't even respond to George's parting swipe there:

Reading his comment, I could not help but imagine how different the statement would have looked had it exemplified even a modicum of the interpretative charity that Professor Camosy practices in his efforts to depict Peter Singer's thought as sharing vast tracts of common ground with Christian moral teaching. But then, such a statement wouldn't have been of much use to the Obama campaign.

The hermeneutic of charity is something to behold, isn't it? There's a word for the kind of courage it takes for someone who's advising a presidential campaign to accuse another of being a tool of his opponent's. It's not Latin, maybe you'll recognize it: chutzpah. (Read Camosy's reply at the Catholic Moral Theology blog.) George admonishes the authors of "On All of Our Shoulders" for failing to acknowledge that it's highly unlikely that Randian policies will be enacted by a Romney administration. He commends Rick Garnett's "devastating critique," which includes:

The statement, like much of the Ryan is a Randian!! business, overstates significantly the extent to which the policies that are being proposedand certainly the policies that have even a remote chance of being enacted, should Gov. Romney be elected are, in fact, libertarian (let alone Randian).

Where was Garnett and George's concern for the art of the possible when they were darkly warning us about the Freedom of Choice Act? "The Democrats 'programs' and 'approach' with respect to abortion are probably better illustrated by the Freedom of Choice Act, which will certainly become law if Sen. Obama is elected." That was Garnett, writing in August 2008. Four years later, the bill hasn't even gotten out of committee.

George does not grapple with the statement's overriding concern: that individualistic principles are being passed off as compatible with Catholic ones. He devotes one sentence to that issue:

Despite Ryans own very public statements of his points of agreement and significant disagreement with the thought of Ayn Rand, and despite the commendations he has received from the bishops who know him and his work best, Bishop Joseph Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York (formerly of Milwaukee), Ryan is presented as an unreconstructed Randian radical individualist and, as such, a clear opponent of Catholic social teaching.

The signatories do note that for years Paul Ryan has been touting Ayn Rand's social philosophy as a touchstone for his own policy priorities. As recently as 2009, Ryan released this video, where he holds up "the morality of individualism" as "what matters most." After it was pointed out that individualism does not sit well with Catholic teaching on the nature of the human person, he declared that it was really Aquinas who shaped his philosophy. As "On All of Our Shoulders" notes, you'd think such a radical shift in social philosophy would entail a change in policy priorities, but Paul Ryan's remain the same. The signatories don't question Ryan's sincerity, they just want to know what it means for his policies. As Matthew Boudway put it back in May: "The point [of Ryan's budget] is to shrink the government and lower taxes. If this helps the poor, so much the better; if it doesnt, sauve qui peut [every man for himself]." If Ryan is done with the "morality of individualism," how would we know? George doesn't say.

Apparently he'd rather talk about "authentic social teaching," which "begins from an affirmation of":

(a) the inherent and equal dignity and fundamental right to life of every member of the human family, including the child in the womb; (b) the centrality and indispensable social significance of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; and (c) religious freedom and the rights of conscience.

That abortion, gay marriage, and the contraception mandate are the top three issues on George's candidate's "Issues for Catholics" scorecard (.pdf) must be a coincidence. Because it would be strange for a Romney adviser to call this statement "scandalous" for its failure to repeat the candidate's Catholic selling points, or for a Romney endorser to complain that the statement presents itself as nonpartisan, especially when that adviser turns around and offers a tendentious reading of Obama's record by calling it more Randian than anything Paul Ryan has proposed.Ayn Rand was "proabortion," George writes, just like Obama and Biden, who "undermined the right to life of the child in the womb in every way they possibly can." Well, maybe not every way. The Obama administration missed a chance to promote abortion when it learned that New Mexico and Pennsylvania were poised to use federal Affordable Care Act money to fund elective abortions, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius blocked them. At the time, the chairman of the USCCB prolife committee praised the move.

George continues, given her views on sexual morality, Rand would be pleased as punch with the fact that Obama and Biden "have committed themselves to abolishing in law the conjugal understanding of marriage as the union of husband and wife and replacing it with a conception of marriage as an intimate relationship of two persons of the same or opposite sexes." This might surprise gay-marriage advocates who deride Obama's actual position -- that states should decide the issue -- as "marriage-equality federalism." (Incidentally, that's been Dick Cheney's view since 2004.) Neither Obama nor Biden have called for "abolishing in law" the traditional understanding of marriage. Indeed, they have proposed no laws.

And finally, the contraception mandate: George doesn't say how this would thrill Ayn Rand, but he does mention that the Obama administration wants to force Catholic employers "to provide health insurance coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraceptives." Nor does he differentiate between actual abortion drugs (RU-486) and emergency contraception, just as he fails to note that the science on the abortifacient properties of one such drug is unsettled at best. Not a peep about the Obama administration's proposed accommodation, which would allow religious employers to contract for health coverage without contraception (that would be offered separately by insurance companies at no cost to employees). No, to acknowledge that might lend credence to the idea that Obama does not "oppose religious freedom for Catholic institutions," as Romney's "Issues for Catholics" scorecard has it.

To be sure, there's nothing strange about a Catholic objecting to the president's views on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception coverage -- Commonweal has published critiques of all those policies. But if you want to position yourself as a fair-minded critic, even a fair-minded partisan, then you've got to work hard not to interpret your opponents' "words tendentiously to depict them in the most unfavorable possible light." Failing to do so might not "damage the spirit of democracy," but it will damage the credibility of your claims.

The phantom accommodation?

On March 2, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, released a letter suggesting that the negotiations between the White House and the USCCB over the conteception mandate had stalled because of the administration's intransigence -- especially on the issues of self-funded health plans and the definition of "religious employer" in the HHS regulations.

A few days later, an administration source shot back, claiming that the White House had put nearly everything on the table for negotiation "only to be rebuffed" by the USCCB.On March 14, the Administrative Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement repeating their opposition to the contraception-coverage mandate -- and laced with tendentious claims. Committee members again complained that the "now-finalized rule of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services...would force virtually all private health plans nationwide to provide coverage of sterilization and contraception -- including abortifacient drugs -- subject to an exemption for 'religious employers' that is arbitrarily narrow, and to an unspecified and dubious future 'accommodation' for other religious organizations that are denied the exemption." (For more on how the chairman of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom used to think about one of those morning-after pills, click here.)

Two days later, on March 16, HHS released an "Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" -- stay caffeinated if you're going to try to read the whole thing; the regulatory patois is brutal. The document addresses most of the bishops' concerns, and requests public comment on some of the thornier regulatory problems. (Read Commonweal's editorial on the bishops' statement and the HHS document here.) From the beginning, the bishops have criticized the method HHS used to determine which religious employers would be exempt from providing contraception coverage to employees. You'll recall that the original ruling fully exempts only religious employers that are nonprofits, that employ and serve primarily co-religionists, and whose primary purpose is the inculcation of religious values. Obviously that doesn't cover certain Catholic ministries, such as hospitals and colleges. The Administrative Committee's letter darkly warns that the HHS definition of religious employer "will spread throughout federal law, weakening its healthy tradition of generous respect for religious freedom and diversity."

Not according to the HHS document:

The Departments emphasize that this religious exemption is intended solely for purposes of the contraceptive coverage requirement pursuant to section 2713 of the PHS Act and the companion provisions of ERISA and the Code. Whether an employer is designated as religious for these purposes is not intended as a judgment about the mission, sincerity, or commitment of the employer, and the use of such designation is limited to defining the class that qualifies for this specific exemption. The designation will not be applied with respect to any other provision of the PHS Act, ERISA, or the Code, nor is it intended to set a precedent for any other purpose.

What about the way the exemption definition will function once it goes into full effect in August 2013? Last month the USCCB put out a press release that claimed some Catholic parishes would not be exempt: "Some churches may have service to the broader community as a major focus, for example, by providing direct service to the poor regardless of faith. Such churches would be denied an exemption precisely because their service to the common good is so great." Of course that was a stretch, but given the complex relationship of Catholic institutions to their host dioceses, how will the administration determine which organizations are exempt? Back to the March 16 HHS document:

In addition, we note that this exemption is available to religious employers in a variety of arrangements. For example, a Catholic elementary school may be a distinct common-law employer from the Catholic diocese with which it is affiliated. If the schools employees receive health coverage through a plan established or maintained by the school, and the school meets the definition of a religious employer in the final regulations, then the religious employer exemption applies. If, instead, the same school provides health coverage for its employees through the same plan under which the diocese provides coverage for its employees, and the diocese is exempt from the requirement to cover contraceptive services, then neither the diocese nor the school is required to offer contraceptive coverage to its employees.

In other words, even though the Obama administration seems unwilling to budge on the rule's definition of "religious employer," the full exemption may cover more organizations than some of the mandate's critics initially thought. Employees of those institutions will not have access to free contraception coverage provided separately by insurers, as the accommodation proposes for religious hospitals, colleges, and charities.

Another major point of contention has been how self-funded health plans will fit into the HHS exemption structure. When an institution funds its own health plans, it doesn't pay premiums to an insurance company. It pays an insurance company a fee to administer the plan. If, say, Cigna is contracted to handle the plan, employees get an insurance card from the company. When employees receive medical services, Cigna forwards the bills to the employer, which in turn reimburses the insurer according to an agreed-upon price structure. When states began requiring insurance companies to cover contraception with their prescription drug benefits, religious institutions could avoid providing such coverage by self-funding their health plans -- because self-funded health plans are subject to federal, not state, regulation. That won't be an option once the HHS mandate kicks in, which is why the accommodation is a good idea.

But even if the bishops were to agree that the accommodation allows Catholic institutions to avoid illicit remote material cooperation with evil, because insurance companies would be responsible for providing separate contraception coverage to employees, when it comes to self-funded plans, almost all the money that pays for medical care comes from the employer. The cooperation would be significantly less remote.

The HHS document proposes several byzantine arrangements all designed to shift the provision of contraception coverage from self-insured religious groups to third parties, from the insurance companies that administer those plans to the government itself. The document does not finalize any of those arrangements, but requests public comment on those ideas and others for a period of ninety days. And in a separate document,HHS issued a final rule that fully exempts self-funded student plans from the contraception mandate.The bishops won't get the Taco Bell exemption. But the administration has shown that it's serious about working through the religious-liberty issues identified by the bishops. This is not necessarily a political win for Obama -- Democrats are raising money on the issue. But it's the right thing to do. Maybe someone at the USCCB will notice.

Obama fixes contraception mandate. (updated)

President Obama has announced a major revision of the mandate requiring employers to provide contraception coverage in employee health plans. Under the new rule, senior administration officials confirmed, no religious institution will have to pay for health-insurance plans that include contraception coverage. Not houses of worship, not parish schools, not universities, not hospitals, not charitable organizations.The outline of the new rule is fairly simple. Nonprofit religious institutions that do not fall within the narrow religious exemption will not have to offer employee health plans that cover contraception. Instead, the employer's insurance company will have to contact employees directly and offer contraception coverage at no cost. (Religious organizations that primarily employ and serve co-religionists, and whose mission is primarily to inculcate its values, will not be covered by this new arrangement.)

Why would insurers agree to provide contraception services for free? Because, actuarially, it seems to make financial sense. The average pregnancy costs roughly $12,000. Enrollees who use contraception are cheaper to cover.

The revised ruling seems to have satisfied both Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, who had criticized the original ruling, and Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, both of whom made statements praising the revised policy.Given that religious institutions will not have to pay for policies that include contraception, and they there is no requirement that they refer employees for such services, the new policy directly addresses the legitimate objections raised by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.We'll see. More details as they come throughout the day.

Updates: USCCB press release:

"While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them," said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of USCCB. "The past three weeks have witnessed a remarkable unity of Americans from all religions or none at all worried about the erosion of religious freedom and governmental intrusion into issues of faith and morals," he said.

"Today's decision to revise how individuals obtain services that are morally objectionable to religious entities and people of faith is a first step in the right direction," Cardinal-designate Dolan said. "We hope to work with the Administration to guarantee that Americans consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations."

Statement from Sr. Keehan:

The Catholic Health Association is very pleased with the White House announcement that a resolution has been reached that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions. The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed.We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished. The unity of Catholic organizations in addressing this concern was a sign of its importance.This difference has at times been uncomfortable but it has helped our country sort through an issue that has been important throughout the history of our great democracy.The Catholic Health Association remains committed to working with the Administration and others to fully implement the Affordable Care Act to extend comprehensive and quality health care to many who suffer today from the lack of it.

President Obama's remarks:

As part of the health care reform law that I signed last year, all insurance plans are required to cover preventive care at no cost. That means free check-ups, free mammograms, immunizations and other basic services. We fought for this because it saves lives and it saves money - for families, for businesses, for government, for everybody. That's because its a lot cheaper to prevent an illness than to treat one.

We also accepted a recommendation from the experts at the Institute of Medicine that when it comes to women, preventive care should include coverage of contraceptive services such as birth control. In addition to family planning, doctors often prescribe contraception as a way to reduce the risks of ovarian and other cancers, and treat a variety of different ailments. And we know that the overall cost of health care is lower when women have access to contraceptive services.

Nearly 99 percent of all women have relied on contraception at some point in their lives - 99 percent. And yet, more than half of all women between the ages of 18 and 34 have struggled to afford it. So for all these reasons, we decided to follow the judgment of the nations leading medical experts and make sure that free preventive care includes access to free contraceptive care.

Whether you're a teacher, or a small businesswoman, or a nurse, or a janitor, no woman's health should depend on who she is or where she works or how much money she makes. Every woman should be in control of the decisions that affect her own health. Period. This basic principle is already the law in 28 states across the country.

Now, as we move to implement this rule, however, we've been mindful that there's another principle at stake here - and thats the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and as a Christian, I cherish this right. In fact, my first job in Chicago was working with Catholic parishes in poor neighborhoods, and my salary was funded by a grant from an arm of the Catholic Church. And I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could, so I know how important the work that faith-based organizations do and how much impact they can have in their communities. I also know that some religious institutions - particularly those affiliated with the Catholic Church - have a religious objection to directly providing insurance that covers contraceptive services for their employees. And that's why we originally exempted all churches from this requirement - an exemption, by the way, that eight states didn't already have. And that's why, from the very beginning of this process, I spoke directly to various Catholic officials, and I promised that before finalizing the rule as it applied to them, we would spend the next year working with institutions like Catholic hospitals and Catholic universities to find an equitable solution that protects religious liberty and ensures that every woman has access to the care that she needs.

Now, after the many genuine concerns that have been raised over the last few weeks, as well as, frankly, the more cynical desire on the part of some to make this into a political football, it became clear that spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option, that we needed to move this faster. So last week, I directed the Department of Health and Human Services to speed up the process that had already been envisioned. We weren't going to spend a year doing this; we're going to spend a week or two doing this.Today, we've reached a decision on how to move forward. Under the rule, women will still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive services - no matter where they work. So that core principle remains. But if a woman's employer is a charity or a hospital that has a religious objection to providing contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company - not the hospital, not the charity - will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge, without co-pays and without hassles.The result will be that religious organizations wont have to pay for these services, and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly. Let me repeat: These employers will not have to pay for, or provide, contraceptive services. But women who work at these institutions will have access to free contraceptive services, just like other women, and they'll no longer have to pay hundreds of dollars a year that could go towards paying the rent or buying groceries.

Now, I've been confident from the start that we could work out a sensible approach here, just as I promised. I understand some folks in Washington may want to treat this as another political wedge issue, but it shouldn't be. I certainly never saw it that way. This is an issue where people of goodwill on both sides of the debate have been sorting through some very complicated questions to find a solution that works for everyone. With today's announcement, we've done that. Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women.We live in a pluralistic society where we're not going to agree on every single issue, or share every belief. That doesn't mean that we have to choose between individual liberty and basic fairness for all Americans. We are unique among nations for having been founded upon both these principles, and our obligation as citizens is to carry them forward. I have complete faith that we can do that. Thank you very much, everybody.

E. J. Dionne reports Catholic Charities USA is pleased with the new ruling:

"Catholic Charities USA welcomes the Administration's attempt to meet the concerns of the religious community and we look forward to reviewing the final language," the group said. "We are hopeful that this is a step in the right direction and are committed to continuing our work to ensure that our religious institutions will continue to be granted the freedom to remain faithful to our beliefs, while also being committed to providing access to quality healthcare for our 70,000 employees and their families across the country."

And Catholics for Choice is none too pleased:

Previous compromises of this nature, such as that in Hawaii, may have made some conservatives happy, but they have also meant that some women have not been able to access coverage in a timely and easy manner. That is unacceptable.Its unfortunate that on this issue, as many others, far too many in the administration and Congress have sacrificed womens health to get something they want more.

I'm not sure they have the slightest idea what the new rule actually requires.