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dotCommonweal Blog

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Three stories now featured on our home page.

George Scialabba writes on Leszek Kolakowski and the essays collected in Is God Happy?

[Kolakowski was not] solely or even primarily a political critic; he was a philosopher and a historian of philosophy. He wrote books on seventeenth-century philosophy, Bergson, Husserl, and positivism, among many others, including several on the philosophy of religion, such as The Presence of Myth, God Owes Us Nothing, Religion: If There Is No God…, and the middle section of Is God Happy?

The Enlightenment plays the same role in Kolakowski’s philosophical writings as Marxism does in his political writings. It’s where modernity went astray, where virtue took a wrong turn. Marxism distorted the quest for equality and social justice into utopian dogmatism; the Enlightenment distorted the promise of science and the rejection of superstition into relativistic rationalism. And just as Kolakowski’s positive political beliefs were hard to pin down (the closest he came was in an essay called “How To Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist”), so were his positive religious beliefs. For a long time he styled himself an “inconsistent atheist,” but near the end of his life he resolved the inconsistency by returning to the Catholic Church.

Perhaps the philosophical equivalent of “conservative-liberal-socialist” is “skeptical traditionalist.” At any rate, that’s a good description of Kolakowski’s religious/philosophical stance until his (re-) conversion. He was not (at least in his writing) a God-haunted man so much as a scourge of secularism; not so much avid to penetrate the mysteries as keen to debunk their debunkers. He does not have much comfort for afflicted believers, but he rejoices in afflicting comfortable unbelievers.

Nicholas Clifford looks at the "historical amnesia" of Catholic leaders on religious liberty:

The greater question implicitly raised by [Archbishop William] Lori, but never answered, has to do with the Catholic Church’s recent conversion to a view of religious freedom as a “fundamental right.” When and why did it happen? Here, Lori’s historical account carries us back no farther than Dignitatis humanae forty-eight years ago. Again he’s perfectly accurate when he says that “successive popes have reaffirmed the church’s commitment to this principle,” and though he rather surprisingly ignores John XXIII’s role in planting seeds, he cites John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I, in support of religious freedom. Yet isn’t this a bit like saying that ever since the Voting Rights Act—also of 1965—successive U.S. presidents have upheld the ideal of racial equality? Case closed, in short; and there’s no longer any need to delve into America’s murky past from 1789 to 1964, and to have to explain the difficult contradictions that crop up.

Or is there? And if, since 1965, “successive” popes have upheld religious freedom, what can we say about “predecessive” popes, those who earlier presided over the governance of the church and its teachings for almost two millennia? Should we simply ignore them?

Finally, E. J. Dionne Jr. writes about Chris Christie, his debate phobia, and how his pragmatic persona plays against his aims to burnish his conservative record (for more on that last part, see this piece about the governor's veto of a sniper-rifle ban that he proposed himself) . 

Blast from Archbishop Myers's past. (UPDATED)

The Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, has agreed to pay $1.35 million to settle a lawsuit claiming that Archbishop John J. Myers--who served there as bishop from 1990 to 2001--failed to remove a priest from ministry despite having evidence that he had abused a minor. (Myers, you'll recall, has come in for some criticism regarding his handling of accused priests in his current diocese, Newark.)

The plaintiff, Andrew Ward, now twenty-five, accused the late Rev. Thomas Maloney of molesting him in 1995 and '96, when Ward was eight. About a year earlier, a woman informed the diocese that Maloney had abused her sister when she was ten years old. Myers denies knowing anything about it. Indeed, if anything comes through in the 2010 deposition of Myers, just unsealed as part of the settlement, it's that the archbishop's memory is less than ideal.

For example, Myers doesn't remember much about the generous gifts Maloney gave him over the years (starting in the late 1980s, apparently). Does he recall receiving Maloney's own "precious" camera? No. What about gold coins? Sort of. The silver object so large "it could be tied around one's neck like the proverbial millstone," as Myers desrcibed it to Maloney in a thank-you note? Hard to say. 

Now, it's not unusual for priests to give gifts to their bishop following confirmations. Such offerings usually amount to $1 per child, rarely totaling more than $500. But many bishops set up trusts to receive such funds for later disbursemet to charity. Myers apparently used them to cover personal expenses--including his mother's health care, his vacations, and his trips to the track. (SEE UPDATE BELOW.)

So were Myers and Maloney friends? The archbishop has trouble with that question too: "I don't know if 'friends' would — I had many other priests that I was closer to. I can say that." How many of those other priests were invited to vacation with Myers, as Maloney was in 2000? How many used their homilies to relate personal stories of their friendship with the bishop, sometimes referring to him as "Johnny"? How many were nominated by Myers to be made monsignor, as Maloney was in 2000? (Settle in, this is going to be a long post.)

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When ‘allegedly prolife’ groups attack.

Over the past few years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been steadily criticized by a few prolife groups claiming the bishops’ domestic-poverty program has been funding organizations that promote abortion and artificial contraception. We’ve written about this before. The critics’ stock-and-trade is guilt by association (you know, Jesus’ M.O.). From time to time they may discover a grant that violates the bishops’ own guidelines—which were recently revised to respond to these ceaseless complaints. But mostly it's your basic smear job. They comb coalitions for members who have taken public stances antithetical to church teaching on sex and abortion, then tie them to recipients of Catholic funding. (Protip: If someone on the board of your charity has ever had lunch with someone who publicly disagrees with Catholic teaching on sex or abortion, don’t expect to pass muster with the magisterium of the American Life League.)

Having apparently exhausted their domestic targets, these critics have set their sights on Catholic Relief Services, the bishops’ foreign-poverty organization. The latest salvo was delivered by the Population Research Institute, a $1.4 million operation based in Virginia. According to PRI, Catholic Relief Services has been “using funding from American Catholics to distribute contraceptive and abortifacient drugs and devices” in Madagascar. PRI claims that a representative spoke with CRS workers and local clergy who confirmed that the organization had been “directly involved in the promotion and distribution of contraceptive and abortifacient drugs and devices.”

That sounds bad, and it would be, if PRI’s reporting seemed reliable. But does it? 

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Pope sacks bishops after financial scandal.

At the bottom of today's Vatican news bulletin, you'll find news that two of Solvenia's top bishops have resigned, "in accordance with canon 401 para. 2 of the Code of Canon Law." That's the part that states, "A diocesan bishop who, because of illness or some other grave reason, has become unsuited for the fulfilment of his office, is earnestly requested to offer his resignation from office." In this case, it looks like these bishops were removed for the some other grave reason of being implicated in a major financial scandal. They weren't kicked upstairs.

The scandal dates back to 2011, when media reported the diocese suffered losses of up to 800 million euros ($1.1 billion) on investments in a chain of failing businesses, including a nationwide TV network known for its variety of porn channels.
 
Maribor's previous bishop, Franc Kramberger, resigned after the reports. [Archbishops] Stres and Turnsek were at the time also allegedly involved in the diocese's finances, though they argue they weren't the most responsible for the losses.
They may be the only people in history to lose money investing in pornography.
 
Can you think of any other grave reason that a bishop might lose his job?
 

The editors on same-sex marriage

Now on our website, Commonweal's editors on same-sex marriage after recent rulings from the Supreme Court.

Commonweal has expressed skepticism and urged caution regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage, while at the same time defending the rights and dignity of homosexual persons both in society and in the church. In the aftermath of the chaos and destruction, both personal and social, wrought by the so-called sexual revolution, the rush to change the fundamental heterosexual basis of marriage seemed imprudent. With the institution of marriage already in crisis, such an unprecedented social experiment appeared to pose risks—especially to the already precarious place of children within modern marriage—that were all but impossible to measure. ... Advocates cast same-sex marriage as the extension of basic rights to a once excluded group, but it is likely also a reflection of—and a further step toward—an essentially privatized and libertarian moral culture. ...

[I]t is no secret that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been among the most outspoken opponents of same-sex marriage. The conference’s advocacy, which has often cast the debate in hyperbolic terms, has persuaded few and offended many. With typical alarm, the bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage issued a statement calling the Court’s decisions “a tragic day for marriage and our nation,” and a “profound injustice to the American people.” The statement went on to use variations on the phrase “the truth of marriage” seven times in two brief paragraphs, as though mere incantation were a substitute for persuasion. ... Surely, whatever its legitimate reservations about the legalization of same-sex marriage, it is time for the church to begin to come to terms with this challenging new cultural and pastoral reality, a reality that calls for far more than overwrought predictions of moral decline and social calamity.

Read the whole thing here. Read previous stories on the court and same-sex marriage here, here, and here.

CHA OK with final contraception-coverage rule.

Last night the Catholic Health Association issued a memo to its members announcing that the final rules governing the Obama administration's contraception-coverage mandate are workable. In June of last year, CHA strongly criticized--as did the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops--the way the Department of Health and Human Services had attempted to accommodate the concerns of religious employers who objected to the mandate. The USCCB is still not (and may never be) happy with the rule. But CHA now believes HHS has addressed their concerns.

“It was important for our members to achieve resolution of this issue in time for them to negotiate their insurance renewals and with the assurance they would not have to contract, provide, pay or refer for contraceptive coverage," Sr. Carol Keehan, president of CHA, told me. "We are pleased that that has been achieved with this accommodation.” From yesterday's memo:

Since the original rule was issued over a year ago, there has been considerable concern raised by many parties including CHA. CHA had two principal concerns. The first was the four-part definition of what constituted a "religious employer." That concern has been eliminated. CHA's second concern was establishing a federal precedent that mandated our members would have to include in their health plans, services they had well-established moral objections to.

HHS has now established an accommodation that will allow our ministries to continue offering health insurance plans for their employees as they have always done.

Given that CHA membership includes only nonprofit hospitals, it's not concerned with for-profit employers who object to the mandate. "We recognize the broader issues will continue to be debated and litigated by others." Still, "Throughout this process, CHA has been in dialogue with the leadership of the bishops conference, the administration, and HHS."

So what do the final rules say?

As CHA explained to its members, the final rules dispatch with the earlier, much-maligned four-part definition of a religious employer as one that is not for profit, primarily serves co-religionists, primarily employs co-religionists, and exists to inculcate religious values. That's been simplified. HHS lifted the new definition from the tax code. Any religious organization that's exempt from filing a Form 990 (which all other nonprofits must file with the IRS every year)--including churches, integrated auxiliary association, and the religious activities of any religious order--is completely exempt from the mandate. That is, they don't have to offer contraception coverage to their employees, and their employees are not eligible to receive it for free outside their employers' health plans. 

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Morning reads: Bulger, Spitzer, Bishops on VRA

Somewhat overshadowed by events was the release of a statement from the USCCB on the Supreme Court decision overturning Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity, said:

The recent Supreme Court decision necessitates that Congress act swiftly to assure that the right to vote be protected and afforded to all eligible citizens. We urge policymakers to quickly come together to reaffirm the bipartisan consensus that has long supported the Voting Rights Act and to move forward new legislation that assures modern and effective protections for all voters so that they may exercise their right and moral obligation to participate in political life.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Health Association says today that the current combination of exemptions and accommodations within the HHS’s contraception mandate are sufficient.

Campaign-ish notes: Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor of Texas (I didn’t know either), won’t run for that office again, but is reflecting and, yes, praying, about his plans for the future. 

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Grave inconsistencies.

Yesterday Milwaukee Catholics were treated to a six-thousand-page document dump revealing more information about the way their bishops handled the sexual-abuse crisis over the past few decades. Much of the news is distressingly familiar. You know the dirge: Abusers were routinely moved from parish to parish, or school to school, without telling local administrators why they were being reassigned. Even when bishops practically begged the Vatican to speedily laicize abusive priests, Rome took its time. (The case of John O'Brien seems particularly egregious. He'd been convicted of sexually assaulting a teenager and had petitioned John Paul II to be returned to the lay state. Then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan had to nag the Vatican to grant the petition twice in 2003. O'Brien wasn't laicized until 2009.) But the document cache released by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee does hold some surprises. 

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"Catholic McCarthyism" and the CCHD

Conservative opposition to the bishops' signature anti-poverty initiative, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, has been denounced by bishops and defenders of the church's social justice mission for years. But a new report released today by the progressive lobby Faith in Public Life does a comprehensive job of tallying the efforts of rightwing groups to hamstring the CCHD's mission through what it calls a "Catholic McCarthyism" that relies on guilt by association.

The report points to the emergence of the old neo-Donatism that ignores Catholic teaching on cooperation with evil in favor of a purist approach -- which often dovetails nicely with the right's more libertarian economic views.

The report is here in full -- it's 24 pages but is very readable with lots of solid research and quotable quotes. My Religion News Service story is here, and provides the Reader's Digest (does that still exist?) version.

What seems most significant to me is that this isn't just a blast from the Religious Left against the Religious Right. Rather, the FPL report has been endorsed by dozens of leading Catholic officials and activisits -- many of whom will be recognizable to Commonweal readers -- but also by two former heads of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston and Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane.

As Fiorenza says in the report, the Catholic Church has always worked with groups that it may not agree with completely, but as long as the church wasn't directly supporting or endorsing that group's objectionable goal, there wasn't a problem. He fears that is changing, to the detriment of the church and the country:

"At a time when poverty is growing and people are hurting we should not withdraw from our commitment to helping the poor. Catholic identity is far broader than opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Catholic identity is a commitment to living the Gospel as Jesus proclaimed it, and this must include a commitment to those in poverty."

When I spoke to Fiorenza, he was just heading off to the bishops' closed-door meeting in San Diego -- the first since the election of Pope Francis -- and he was hopeful that Francis' priority on identifying the church with the poor would make an impression of some of the bishops who have bought into the criticisms of the CCHD.

“I’m confident that if Pope Francis knew about the CCHD program he would say, ‘God bless the American bishops!’ for doing what they can to help the poor,” Fiorenza told me.

I wonder if this report and the public support it has drawn from so many Catholic leaders may be a sign of the "Francis Effect" on the wider church.

I recommend reading the FPL report as well as Francis' daily homilies. It seems he doesn't go a day without preaching about social justice. Gay marriage and our favorite American topics, not so much.

Featured on the homepage

We've been running some good web-exclusive content on the homepage. Just posted: "Catholics Are Different," a special package highlighting the writing of Andrew M. Greeley in Commonweal, where over the course of six decades his work appeared. And, if you haven't already, check out Nicholas P. Cafardi's piece on the apparent unwillingness of some bishops to follow their own sexual-abuse reforms. Finally, E. J. Dionne Jr. examines a potentially unbreachable gap between libertarian theory and libertarian practice.

Joseph M. Sullivan, R.I.P.

In a better church, Brooklyn's retired auxiliary bishop Joseph Sullivan would have headed a large diocese. He certainly had the ability and the track record, but it was not to be - no doubt because he was viewed as too liberal.

Nonetheless, he made enormous contributions to the church and to his city, and they will be remembered. Bishop Sullivan died today at the age of 83 as a result of injuries suffered in a traffic accident on May 30.

Appointed in 1968 to be executive director of Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens, he became one of the church's leading experts on social services and later, health services as well. In 1980, Pope John Paul II appointed him (and another Brooklyn priest, Anthony J. Bevilacqua) as auxiliary bishops.

No careerist, Bishop Sullivan refused to back away from his friends Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro during their high-profile battles with Cardinal John O'Connor over Catholic politicians and abortion. By 1989, when Brooklyn's Bishop Francis Mugavero died, it was clear to everyone that no matter how qualified he might be, Sullivan would not be named to head the diocese.

Somehow, that made him all the more impressive a figure. At meetings of the bishops' conference, his comments seemed to receive the respect and attention accorded to the words of a cardinal. He headed an ad hoc committee that created the bishops' 1999 document "In All Things Charity: A Pastoral Challenge for the New Millennium." He continued to fight the good fight, whether for peace, for the poor, for workers, for the ill and uninsured.

New issue, now live

Now featured on the home page, stories from our new issue

In “Beyond the Stalemate” (subscription), Peter Steinfels looks at where we are forty years after Roe:

That Americans and American Catholics remain divided over abortion is, in important ways, to our credit. But some divisions are more necessary, compelling, or expedient than others. Some are well considered and executed, others are not. Some are paralyzing and self-destructive, others point toward fruitful resolution. Forty years after Roe, it is incumbent on Catholics to reexamine their stance toward abortion and its legalization.

There is natural resistance to any such reexamination. This is a topic associated with too much pain—and often hidden pain—along with too much hypocrisy, illusion, and male betrayal. Many Catholics who are angry at church leaders or prolife activists for their harsh rhetoric, political absolutism, moral righteousness, or general attitudes toward women and sexuality simply refuse to think about the topic further. Prolife leaders, on the other hand, boost morale by seizing on any uptick in public opinion, any success in a state legislature, and every fresh summons from religious authorities as confirmation that their present course, no matter how inadequate or counterproductive, is unassailable. …

My own reexamination of the Catholic stance on abortion begins with two simple statements and then attempts to determine what conclusions and practical proposals might flow from them.

First statement: From the very earliest stages of its life, the unborn offspring of human beings constitutes an individual member of the human species deserving the same protections from harm and destruction owed to born humans.

Second statement: This conviction, taught by the Catholic Church and shared by many people, religious and non-religious, is nowhere near as obvious as many of us who hold it suppose.

David Rieff sees trouble in the calls for “humanitarian war” in Syria: 

If the conditions on the ground in Syria today, after two years of unbridled civil war, were more akin to those in Libya at the time French president Nicolas Sarkozy persuaded his NATO partners to act, or to those in Mali at the time of the recent French military intervention than they are to the conditions in Iraq or Afghanistan, then the ardor of the liberal hawks and the neoconservatives for intervention there would not seem so reckless. After all, the interventions in Libya and Mali both seemed to recapitulate the so-called humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, where the core of the debate was never whether a U.S. or NATO intervention would be successful—this, probably rightly, was taken for granted—but only whether there was really a will in Washington, Brussels, London, or Paris to intervene in a Bosnia, Rwanda, or Kosovo. But even most of those who think the United States must act in Syria concede that not only is an effective military intervention there likely to prove far more difficult than in Iraq, let alone in Mali or Kosovo; it is also by no means sure that any political result that is now imaginable will be much of an improvement over a continuation of the Assad dictatorship.

Also, Richard Alleva reviews The Great Gatsby, and E. J. Dionne Jr. remembers Fr. Andrew Greeley, the “loving pugilist.” 

USCCB names new executive director of Committee on Doctrine.

Today the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced that Peter Ryan, SJ, will succeed Thomas Wienandy, OFM Cap, as executive director of the Committee on Doctrine. From the press release: "Fr. Ryan has been director of spiritual formation and professor of moral theology at Kenrick-Gennon Seminary in St. Louis since January 2012. Prior to that he was professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland, 2001-2011, and assistant professor of theology at Loyola College in Maryland, 1994-2001." He is a member of the Catholic Fellowship of Scholars, a theologically conservative group, and has served three times on its executive board. (Weinandy is also a member of the Fellowship, as well as the Catholic Theological Society of America.) Ryan's scholarly work has been published in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, the National Catholic Bioethical Quarterly, and Theological Studies. (You can read his argument for adopting abandoned embryos here [.pdf]).

In 2011, Ryan co-authored a controversial article in Theological Studies designed to rebut a 2004 essay calling for a re-evaluation of the church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. The Vatican reportedly pressured the journal to publish Ryan's article unedited and without standard peer review. Its authors denied the latter claim, even though the article appeared with an editors note that read, "Except for minor stylistic changes, the article is published as it was received.” 

Plus ça change.

Contraception, Compromise, and Credibility

Today's New York Times has a story that ought not to be a story. Well, two, if you count "Guess what, a bunch of the groups the IRS was allegedly improperly targeting really were engaged in political activities that made them ineligible for the tax-exempt status they applied for," because duh. But the one I mean is the one by Sharon Otterman, with the headline "Archdiocese Pays for Health Plan That Covers Birth Control."

Otterman reports:

[E]ven as Cardinal Dolan insists that requiring some religiously affiliated employers to pay for contraception services would be an unprecedented, and intolerable, government intrusion on religious liberty, the archdiocese he heads has quietly been paying for such coverage, albeit reluctantly and indirectly, for thousands of its unionized employees for over a decade.

The reason I say this shouldn't be a story is that the archdiocese's explanation is legitimate. "We provide the services under protest,” archdiocesan spokesman Joseph Zwilling told the Times.

Mr. Zwilling...said that Cardinal John J. O’Connor and the archdiocese “objected to these services’ being included in the National Benefit Fund’s health insurance plan” when joining the [League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes] in the 1990s. But the cardinal then decided “there was no other option if the Catholic Church was to continue to provide health care to these union-affiliated employees in the city of New York,” Mr. Zwilling said.

The reason this revelation is a real scoop is not that the bishops, under Dolan's leadership, have protested the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate, as they were right to do, but that they did so in absolutist, life-or-death terms that ignored the reality of political complexity and denied the possibility of compromise. Remember "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty"? Citing Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," the bishops wrote:

It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith....

An unjust law is "no law at all." It cannot be obeyed, and therefore one does not seek relief from it, but rather its repeal.

When you talk like that, and then it turns out you've been indirectly providing coverage for contraception, under protest, for a long time, you undermine your own credibility. Your uncompromising moral stance looks like selective outrage -- with an obviously partisan frame.

Our editorial "Bad Decision" offered this advice:

If Catholic institutions must choose between complying with the law or dropping health-insurance coverage for employees, they should comply “under duress,” while working to modify or overturn the law. In this instance, the greater good of providing health insurance for all employees outweighs the “evil” involved in the possible use of contraception by some.

And our follow-up editorial, "Bad Reaction," added:

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....

Are the bishops not worried that this initiative will be seen as transparently partisan by much of the public?

If they weren't before, maybe they are now? Let's recall that the Obama administration has come up with a compromise that would provide contraceptive coverage to employees of Catholic institutions while not requiring that coverage to be provided directly by the employer. (Here's Cardinal Dolan's response to that proposal; here's Grant Gallicho's critique of Dolan's take.) It may not be a perfect solution. But is it more compromising than what the Archdiocese of New York (for example) is already doing?

Last Memorial Day, Cardinal Dolan wrote a column for Catholic New York that proposed this solution to the church's troubles with the Obama administration:

All Washington has to do is say, “Any entity that finds these mandates morally objectionable is not coerced to do them,” and leave it there. Don’t get into the red tape in trying to mandate for us how our good works should be defined.

How simple! How constitutional! How American!

I noted in a blog post last year that this "simple" solution seems to ignore the reality of how laws work. It certainly doesn't reflect any familiarity with how health insurance works; in that case, the only way to avoid "getting into the red tape" is to not offer employees any insurance at all. The archdiocese has opted not to do that, as today's Times story reports. And that was a good and morally defensible decision. The only reason it looks scandalous now is that it will be seen in the light of heated speechifying about unprecedented threats, unjust laws, and impossible compromises.

Mahony unbound.

Remember how in January, after nearly a decade of legal filibustering, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles finally made public the priest-personnel files it agreed to release as part of a 2007 settlement with abuse victims, except the files were heavily redacted, and remember how those files contained damning memos detailing the lengths to which archdiocesan officials -- including Cardinal Roger Mahony -- went to shield abuser-priests from civil authorities, and how soon after those memos made news, Archbishop Jose Gomez garnered praise for announcing that Mahony would "no longer have any administrative or public duties," and how several media outlets reported that Mahony had been "barred from public ministry," except he really hadn't, and then he took to his blog to dress down Gomez for "not once over these past years...[raising] any questions about our policies, practices, or procedures in dealing with the problem of clergy sexual misconduct involving minors," yet, as Mahony's then-spokesman explained, he had "cleared his calendar" of confirmation appointments this year? Well, he's doing them again. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Since Easter, he has officiated at eight services, including one last week in which he anointed more than 120 youths at a Wilmington parish. His presence has caused controversy, with some parents threatening to pull their children from the liturgies and at least one parish priest asking that Mahony not attend. It has also raised questions about why Gomez's rebuke of Mahony, an unprecedented move that won him praise from victims and their supporters around the world, had so little lasting effect.

You don't say. Gomez's letter did not include anything specific about the alleged change in Mahony's status. And, as an archbishop, Gomez does not have the authority to restrict the ministry of a cardinal. (Only a pope can do that.) But he does have the authority to say who presides over confirmations in the archdiocese. Have a look at the letter. Sorry, is that link broken? It seems the letter is no longer available on the website of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. (The L.A. Times cached a copy here.) Odd that the archdiocese's archive of press releases includes a January 22 apology from auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry, who played a part in archdiocesan efforts to conceal accused priests from the law (and who really did cancel confirmations this spring), along with Gomez's statement on the release of the priest-personnel files, dated January 31 -- the same date on his statement on Mahony. Did that document disappear down the memory hole?

Perhaps amnesia is going around the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. When an L.A. Times reporter approached Mahony after a confirmation he presided over, the cardinal claimed he didn't know that his former spokesman had said he was done doing confirmations for the year: "'That's news to me.... I've been doing them every week and I'm going to be doing them every week,' he said, adding, 'So go home.'"

Strange that Mahony would be so confused, considering the pains he took to defend himself after Gomez published the letter promising that the cardinal would no longer have any public duties. Certainly the cardinal could not be surprised that some parents would not be pleased to have him confirm their children -- not after his series of blog posts cataloging his Lenten challenge to love his enemies, which, oddly, included a meditation on the virtue of remaining silent in the face of false accusations, and a promise to pray for God to forgive those who have expressed anger over his role in the sexual-abuse scandal.

Evidently the cardinal feels he's been unfairly treated by the media, but if his rehabilitation tour is to have any chance of success, he's going to have to start answering some tough questions. He might start with these: Why did you work so hard to block the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops-commissioned investigation of the sexual-abuse scandal, and why, long after the church knew of the dangers posed by abusive priests, did you attempt to hide accused priests from civil authorities? Was it about church resources? Money? If so, why was that more important than justice for victims of sexual abuse -- and the safety of children?

A bishop's cautious optimism about the mandate.

Yesterday, Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, posted his initial -- and positive -- impressions of the latest revision of the contraception mandate. This is significant not only because Lynch is a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- and its former general secretary -- but also because he's on the executive board of the Catholic Health Association, a group we haven't heard from since the new proposals were announced. He explains that his assessment has been aided by the "careful opinion" of CHA's general counsel. So you might take his opinion as a sneak preview of CHA's.

Bishop Lynch begins by praising the Obama administration's response to criticisms raised by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: "Clearly, the Administration has been desirous of listening to and accommodating the concerns of Catholics and other people and institutions of conscience, like myself, who had real worries about the regulatory language in possession up till last Friday." (You'll recall that in 2011 Lynch threatened to cancel his diocese's employee health plan if the contraception mandate didn't get fixed.) Indeed, he says one would be hard-pressed to find another group whose concerns about the Affordable Care Act were taken more seriously. "There have been moments when I think we should consider ourselves lucky that they are still talking to us. "

What has this conversation produced?

First, Lynch says the bishops' concerns about the earlier four-part definition of "religious employer" have been addressed by the new proposal, which uses the definition long established in the federal tax code. "I am personally at peace with this."

Second, Bishop Lynch addresses the new proposal's distinction between exempt employers and accommodated ones. The idea is that neither Catholic parishes nor Catholic charities will have to contract for, pay for, or refer for contraception coverage for their employees. But employees of Catholic dioceses, parishes, and parish schools will not, it seems, be eligible to receive free contraception from third parties. So those kinds of employers are "exempt," while religiously affiliated institutions (hospitals, colleges, charities) are "accommodated" -- their employees can get free contraception coverage. Cardinal Timothy Dolan claims this arrangement "appears to offer second-class status to our first-class institutions in Catholic health care, Catholic education, and Catholic charities." Bishop Lynch disagrees:

As a former teacher of English (long ago), I find any discussion of the difference between exemption and accommodation to be interesting because as I look them both up in the OXFORD DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE I am led to believe that it is a distinction without a difference. I find this especially true when studying the manner in which HHS would allow other religious entities for whom the mandate presents an issue of conscience to decide that they were worthy of the accommodation. Not many other entities of American life are treated with this level of trust (and this would be especially true of the tax code) and some thanks should also be due to the Administration for trying to find a solution which might satisfy us and other constituencies who think otherwise.

Lynch doesn't expand on this point, but one might surmise that when he says there's little difference between an exempt employer and an accommodated one, he's talking about the moral calculus. In both cases, the institution does not have to arrange for or pay for its employees' contraception coverage.

Third, Lynch offers some parting thoughts on two related questions: Who speaks for the church? And whom does the church speak to?

Cardinals, archbishops and bishops are certainly entitled to their opinions (as I hope I am amply demonstrating in this blog post) but since the Second Vatican Council, our collegial voice has almost always been the elected leader of our episcopal conference, currently Cardinal Dolan. His opinion is certainly not binding on every Catholic, but should be accorded greater respect than any of us. But he speaks for the bishops who elected him, as did his predecessors and as will his successors, not necessarily for the whole Church.

He's spoken up on a related subject before. In 2010, the Catholic Health Association and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- then Cardinal Francis George -- found themselves at loggerheads over the abortion-funding mechanism in the health-care reform bill. With the USCCB, George couldn't support the bill because he thought it allowed for federal funding of elective abortions. The CHA didn't see it that way. George seemed to suggest that those who disagreed with the USCCB on that point were undermining episcopal authority. As George told John Allen:

If the bishops have a right and a duty to teach that killing the unborn is immoral, they also have to teach that laws which permit and fund abortion are immoral, George said. It seems that what some people are saying is that the bishops cant, or shouldnt, speak to the moral content of the law, that we should remain on the level of abstract principles.

Is it true that there's no room for legitimate disagreement between bishops and non-bishops about the moral effects of a particular piece of legislation? Soon after, Bishop Lynch responded:

Ive been associated in one way or another with the episcopal conference of the United States since 1972. I have never before this year heard the theory that we enjoy the same primacy of respect for legislative interpretation as we do for interpretation of the moral law.I think this theory needs to be debated and discussed by the body of bishops, he said.

Which leads back to the pointed conclusion of Bishop Lynch's blog post:

As far as I know, at no time up to yesterday (Friday) since the new HHS regs were made available for review and public comment, has anyone from the conference structure consulted with legal counsel for other entities in the Church (hospitals, college and universities, Catholic Charities) to ask their read on how this proposal will affect their ministry. Yet the USCCB statement, it seems, would have one believe that the above mentioned entities might fairly have their noses out-of-joint because they are being given consideration under the accommodation and not the exemption.

But, having just returned from a CHA board meeting, Lynch reports, that is not the case. Now, I can't say whether the USCCB has been consulting with Catholic hospitals, colleges, or charities. Perhaps the bishops conference has been in touch with Catholic Charities USA or the University of Notre Dame. But if there's one outside group the USCCB ought to be consulting with as it formulates its response to the new proposal, it's the Catholic Health Association. If USCCB representatives feel comfortable speaking for CHA members, the least they can do is speak with them.

Lynch closes by asking the bishops to be more humble, to listen more, and to prepare themselves for the fact that the final regulations will fall short of perfection. "I still am grateful that more universal health-care coverage will be the first fruit of the Affordable Care Act, and I am beginning to feel that I can say to my diocesan self-insured employees, all 1,400 of them, that their moral right to health care coverage will survive this moment." 

Is Cardinal Mahony barred from public ministry? (UPDATED)

Following the release of decades-old memos detailing Archdiocese of Los Angeles officials' efforts to conceal sexual-abuse cases, the new archbishop of L.A., Jose Gomez, has relieved Cardinal Roger Mahony of public duties and relieved auxiliary bishop Thomas Curry of his episcopal duties(.pdf). The archbishop's statement comes with the release of twelve thousand pages of diocesan personnel files related to the scandal. Gomez writes:

I cannot undo the failings of the past that we find in these pages. Reading these files, reflecting on the wounds that were caused, has been the saddest experience Ive had since becoming your Archbishop in 2011.My predecessor, retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, has expressed his sorrow for his failure to fully protect young people entrusted to his care. Effective immediately, I have informed Cardinal Mahony that he will no longer have any administrative or public duties. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry has also publicly apologized for his decisions while serving as Vicar for Clergy. I have accepted his request to be relieved of his responsibility as the Regional Bishop of Santa Barbara.

Most reporting on this letter has characterized Gomez's decision as a suspension: Mahony is "barred from ministry," Jerry Filtau writes. Michael Sean Winters hails Gomez as morally courageous: "If you want to see what leadership looks like, re-read Archbishop Gomezs bold, succinct, unaffected, rigorous letter." Yet, according to diocesan spokesman Tod Tamberg, Mahony's daily routine will remain largely unchanged.

Mahony retired in March 2011. As Tamberg told me, since that time Mahony "has had no administrative duties." Tamberg explained that in response to Gomez's letter, the cardinal "is reducing his public profile," which included many speaking engagements, and that the cardinal "has cleared his calendar of confirmation appointments this year." Yet Mahony "remains a priest in good standing, and a cardinal of the church," Tamberg said. "He can celebrate the sacraments with no restrictions." (UPDATE 1: The Archdiocese of Los Angeles just released a statement clarifying that both Mahony and Curry remain bishops in good standing, "with full rights to celebrate the Holy Sacraments of the Church and to minister to the faithful without restriction." It's not clear why Mahony has canceled his confirmation appointments.)

So apparently the effect of this "suspension" will be limited to canceled speaking engagements and no more confirmations. Cardinal Mahony will have public duties, but they will be limited to celebrating the sacraments.

This is not to say Gomez's decision is insignificant. Indeed, as David Gibson has noted, it seems unprecedented. He links to Jerry Filtau's story citing Canon 357: "in those matters which pertain to their own person, cardinals living outside of Rome and outside their own diocese are exempt from the power of governance of the bishop of the diocese in which they are residing." David also points out that, given Mahony's status as a cardinal, Gomez must have had approval from Rome. Perhaps that status prevented Gomez from issuing an actual suspension. Whatever the case, Cardinal Roger Mahony may have been publicly fraternally corrected, but it's inaccurate to claim he's been barred from public ministry.

UPDATE 2: Cardinal Mahony has released his response to Archbishop Gomez, in which he defends himself by listing steps he took to address the sexual-abuse scandal, and calls out Gomez because "not once over these past years [since Gomez became archbishop of Los Angeles] did you ever raise any questions about our policies, practices, or procedures in dealing with the problem of clergy sexual misconduct involving minors." The cardinal is not wrong to point out that Gomez had plenty of time to review the files he now finds so scandalizing. But Mahony seems not to grasp what troubles people most about his role in the scandal. It's not that he just didn't do enough to protect minors from abuser-priests. It's that he worked to conceal abusers from civil authorities.

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.

Catholic conservatives vs. Bishop Kicanas. (UPDATED)

Next week the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will elect its next president. According to custom, the current vice president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson--considered a Bernardin bishop and therefore more liberal--will likely win the presidency. That has some Catholic conservatives up in arms, such asTim Drake, of the Legion of Christ-owned National Catholic Register and Faith and Family Magazine. Citing articles posted to the Web site of WBEZ (Chicago's NPR affiliate), the conservative news outlet Spero News, and a Boston-based Catholic blog, Drake argues that Kicanas is unfit for the office of USCCB president because of his role in the tragic case of the admitted molester Daniel McCormack, now laicized and jailed (I wrote about him here):

If he isnt elected, the story will be why the bishops parted with recent practice. If he is elected, the story will be how the bishops treat their own, and the message the bishops are sending to society about their willingness to prevent sexual abuse.

Kicanas was rector of Mundelein seminary when McCormack studied there. A 2006 diocesan audit found that in 1992, Mundelein officials learned of three accusations of misconduct against McCormack, two from adult seminary classmates (one from McCormack's previous seminary, then called Niles College), and one reportedly from a minor in Mexico. The records of those allegations, along with their details, were never found. Two years later, McCormack was ordained.

In 2007, Kicanas told was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times saying that he was aware of three allegations of "sexual improprieties" against McCormack, but that they were not "credible," therefore it would have been unjust to deny him ordination. "There was a sense that his activity was part of the developmental process and that he had learned from the experience," Kicanas reportedly said. explained. The story said he was "more concerned" about McCormack's drinking problem. "We sent him to counseling for that." Finally, the article reported that Kicanas disagreed that McCormack never should have been ordained: "I dont think there was anything I could have done differently." (See update below.)

It's that last quote that Drake believes disqualifies Kicanas. The Spero News op-ed is titled, "Catholic Bishops to Elect Enabler of Child Molester as National Leader," and, according to Drake, "If Bishop Kicanas is elected its likely to strain the USCCBs credibility." Perhaps. But, just as I haven't seen many liberal Catholic outlets complaining about the ascension of Kicanas to the USCCB presidency, I don't recall reading any stories in the National Catholic Register or Zenit warning the U.S. bishops that electing Cardinal Francis George as their president in 2007 would have dire consequences for the credibility of the USCCB (the Spero op-ed Drake links to does refer to George's role in the McCormack case). Which is strange, because in October '05, Cardinal George's own sexual-abuse review board recommended removing McCormack from ministry, and the cardinal refused to do so. McCormack wasn't removed from ministry until January '06. As victims attorney Marc Pearlman told NPR, "I just don't know...how many kids were abused between the fall of 2005 and January of 2006, when he was finally removed."

Two subsequent audits of archdiocesan sexual-abuse policies revealed a system replete with appalling and obvious shortcomings. What's amazing is that more abusive priests didn't fall through its cracks. One audit found that archdiocesan officials had likely broken Illinois law by failing to report and investigate a 2003 allegation against McCormack. The same audit judged the archdiocese in violation of the USCCB's own sexual-abuse policies, adopted in '02.

I won't defend Kicanas's reported claim that there was nothing he could have done differently in the McCormack case. Now we know he had a serial child molester for a seminarian. Obviously, not ordaining McCormack would have been better; but would it have stopped him from abusing? Do we know enough about what Kicanas knew to call him an "enabler"? Did Mundelein officials "enable" McCormack's crimes any more than George's decision not to follow the advice of his sexual-abuse review board? In other words, if Kicanas's critics really believe his election to the presidency of the USCCB will strain the bishops' credibility, after George's election, what do they think is left of it?

Update: The Register has posted a response from Bishop Kicanas in which he corrects the quotes attributed to him in the Sun-Times story I mention above (read the whole thing). It's full of important clarifications. Key passages:

I would never defend endorsing McCormacks ordination if I had had any knowledge or concern that he might be a danger to anyone, and I had no such knowledge or concern. At no time while McCormack was a seminarian at Mundelein did I receive any allegation of pedophilia or child molestation against him. I never received any allegation, report or concern about McCormack during his seminary years at Mundelein that involved sexual abuse of anyone. Prior to ordination, each students readiness for ordination was discussed at length by seminary administrators, faculty, and the diocesan bishop. Furthermore, McCormack was evaluated, as was every seminarian, each of his four years by faculty and students who were given the opportunity to endorse or not endorse his continuing in the seminary. No student, nor faculty, nor anyone, ever negatively commented on McCormack in all the endorsements he received. With the harm that he has done to children and to families, it is tragic that he was ordained. Would that he had never been ordained.(...)

McCormick was in the seminary for 12 years before ordination. At the high school and college seminary, no concerns, to my knowledge, were ever raised about him. From all reports, he was a good student, a good athlete and was most cooperative.

While McCormack was at Mundelein, a student commented to his counselor that when they were in Mexico studying Spanish, McCormick had been in a bar where they had been drinking and that as they were leaving the bar, McCormack had in public patted a person on the behind over clothing. When the counselor reported that to us, McCormack was called in and was asked to give an explanation. His explanation was exactly as was reported to the counselor by the other seminarian. Neither account indicated any sexual act or intention.

In the course of that discussion, McCormack revealed that while at the college several years before he had had two consensual sexual experiences with peers while they were drinking. He assured us that he had worked this through with his spiritual director and that he wanted to live a celibate life.

Nevertheless, because of the seriousness of his admission about behavior that had occurred in his past, he was sent for extensive evaluation to determine if he could live a celibate life and if there was any concern about his affective maturity. That evaluation indicated that the nature of the experiences he had related was experimental and developmental, although it indicated that drinking might be a concern because the experiences involved drinking. He was further evaluated to determine if there were any alcohol issues.

In reviewing his readiness for ordination, to our knowledge he never had any sexual activity with anyone during his four years at Mundelein, giving confidence that he actually did and could live a commitment to celibacy. While he was at Mundelein, no allegation or report or concern of sexual abuse of anyone was ever made against McCormack.

Read the rest here.

(H/T, rather amazingly, Andrew Sullivan.)