Better Late Than Never

Obama's Contraception Compromise

Politicized culture wars are debilitating because they almost always require partisans to denigrate the moral legitimacy of their opponents, and sometimes to deny their very humanity. It's often not enough to defeat a foe. Satisfaction only comes from an adversary's humiliation.

One other thing about culture wars: One side typically has absolutely no understanding of what the other is trying to say.

That is why the battle over whether religious institutions should be required to cover contraception under the new health-care law was so painful -- and why it was so hard to comprehend why President Barack Obama, who has been a critic of culture wars for so long, did not try to defuse this explosive question from the beginning.

It's also why he was right, finally, to reach a compromise that respected the legitimate concerns of each side. He should have done this at the outset, but far better late than never. 

That so many liberal Catholics supported the church's core claim surprised both Catholic conservatives and more secular liberals. There are lessons here, and that includes lessons for Obama.

Those of us who are liberal Catholics have remained in the church for reasons beyond tribal loyalties or a desire to honor the traditions of our parents and grandparents. At the heart of the love many of us have for the church -- despite our frustrations over its abysmal handling of the sexual-abuse scandal and its reluctance to grant women the rights they are due -- is a profound respect for the fact on so many questions that count, Catholicism walks its talk and harnesses its faith to the good works the gospel demands.

When it comes to lifting up the poor, healing the sick, assisting immigrants and refugees, educating the young (especially in inner cities), comforting orphaned and abandoned children, and organizing the needy to act in their own interest, the church has been there with resources and an astoundingly committed band of sisters, priests, brothers, and laypeople. Organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Catholic Health Association, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and Catholic Relief Services make the words of Jesus come alive every day.

For liberals who sided with the church in this controversy, the most vexing problem with the original exemption on contraception is that it defined "religious" so narrowly that the reality that these organizations go out of their way to serve non-Catholics was held against them. Their gospel-inspired work was defined as nonreligious. This violated the very essence of Christian charity and the church's social-justice imperatives.

Some conservative Catholics still insist that the relief from regulation that Obama offered is not enough. I hope they reconsider, especially since the Catholic service providers most affected by the revised rule welcomed it. What bothers liberal Catholics about the arguments advanced by some of our conservative friends is that the Catholic right seems so eager to focus the church's witness to the world on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research and, now, perhaps, contraception that they would effectively, if not necessarily intentionally, relegate the church's social-justice work and teaching to second-class status. 

Liberal Catholics were proud to stand with conservatives in defending the church's religious liberty rights in carrying out its social and charitable mission. Now, we'd ask conservatives to consider that what makes the gospel so compelling -- especially for the young, many of whom are leaving the church -- is the central role it assigns to our responsibilities to act on behalf of the needy, the left-out and the abandoned.

And we'd ask our non-Catholic liberal friends to think about this, too. Many of us agreed that broad contraception coverage was, as a general matter, a good thing, and we shared their concern for women's rights. But we were troubled that some with whom we usually agree seemed to relish a fight with the church and defined any effort to accommodate its anxieties as "selling out."

As a young politician put it in 2006, "There are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word ëChristian' describes one's political opponents, not people of faith."

Barack Obama, who spoke those words, finally figured out that a sensible compromise on contraception was far better than a running cultural and religious war. The administration would do well not to lose track of that guy again. 

(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

Related: Bad Decision, by the Editors
For more coverage of this issue from dotCommonweal, click here.

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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Thanks for articulating this position.  It seems to draw a line in the sand, between "conservative" and "progressive" Catholics that I was surprised not to see appear when this mess was first born late last year.

I think Dionne has "declared victory and gone home;" whereas the so-called "compromise" is not a compromise at all, but merely an accounting trick which leaves many questions still unanswered, in particular, why does the Government have the right, seemingly contrary to the First Amendment, to attempt such mandates on a religious institution. I believe Dionne's article is pre-mature.


I think the President intended to compromise all along.  He put out a compromisable position & in the process got a "read" on public opinion. That opinion favored him on the original mandate.  The "compromise" mandate is what already exists in many states, including California, where Rick Warren says he'd rather go to jail than obey it, but has had thirteen years to put his body where his mouth now  is.   If the Bishops want to take a hardcore stand against it they will  find themselves on the losing side not only of public opinion, but of Catholic opinion. But that doesn't matter. They often enough find themselves there, sometimes with good reason, sometimes not.   The Repuiblicans & their evangelical protestant base stepped right into Mr. Obama's trap, putting themselves in a position to alienate every woman in America who uses or has used contraception & consders it not only an incontestable right, but also vital to women's health.

<blockquote>If the Bishops want to take a hardcore stand against it they will  find themselves on the losing side not only of public opinion, but of Catholic opinion.</blockquote>

I don't think there are "winning" and "losing" sides here - except, of course, the government's side, which always wins, in one sense, because it has all the power.

This is a serious moral controversy, if not to the "progressives" then to many others.  And many others matter in a representative democracy - not just the majority or the party in power.  This issue - and others like it - will live on and develop as the future of this democracy unwinds.

This controversy has revealed how many so-called progressive Democrats are at heart anti-Catholic bigots. It is sad. There would be no Democratic party today if it were not for Catholics support over the last 150 years. Catholics formed the backbone of the Democratic Party in the north and the midwest. My parents and their parents, all working-class Irish, Itailian and Czechs, first and second generation Americans, were all Catholics and Democrats. My dad was a union orgnizer in his youth and later a NY Irish cop. I doubt they'd be Democrats today. I've been in and out of the Democratic Party over the last thirty years. Now an Independent, I doubt I'd ever rejoin. When Catholics oppose abortion on demand based on sound moral principles, they're called "anti-women" by the so-called "progressive" Democrats. When they oppose equating gay unions with marriage, based again on sound moral principles agreed upon by most civilized people for millenia, they are called "homophobes," again by these so-called progressives. The anti-Catholic vitriol in the social media, and some of the main stream media, over the last week has been astounding.  Perhaps it is about time these bigots are labeled for what they are, "anti-Christian," and, specifically, "anti-Catholic bigots."


EJ, I aprreciate you. I have done a blog responding to the ridiculous attacks against you on the left. Particularly ridiculous is the idea that you are aiding the legacy of Jerry Falwell. Here is my link:



The "compromise" is just the same mandate as before with slightly modified phrasing. It is insulting. Telling that the author of this piece prefers to discuss something called "culture wars," implying, perhaps, that anyone who disagrees with it is an aggressor? Wasn't Obama clearly the one who picked this fight?

The author sighs at those "conservative Catholics," like the USCCB, who "still insist that the relief from regulation that Obama offered is not enough." What relief? This is begging the question. Nothing has changed. 

It is very disheartening the way the Administration is treating Catholics. If it were not for the last minute switch of moderate Democrats in the House, most of whom were Catholic, there would never have been an Affordable Healthcare Act. President Obama has reneged on both the spirit and letter of the promises he made at that time. We Catholics who support this Administration should be very wary.

<i>"That so many liberal Catholics supported the church's core claim surprised both Catholic conservatives and more secular liberals. </i>




Haha!  As usual, a man writes about contraception, and other men respond.  Where are the women?


 Dionne claims that "many liberal Catholics" joined him and the bishops at the barricades.  Were there any women among the "many"? 


Funny how the men writing, editorializing, accusing, commenting, ruminating, etc., etc., on contraception agree that women don't count and don't need to be counted.





Our local bishop compared the proposed contraception mandate to the Holocaust. The ending words of his letter read from the pulpit: "The only thing required for evil to triumph over good is for good people to say nothing." Probably not only Jews were disturbed by the implicit moral equivalence.

This is not a good time to be a Catholic with a uterus. How do these men propose to speak for me... to understand what it is to be a woman?  I do not claim to understand what it is to be a man. How many women have "bred themselves to death"?  How many men get health insurance coverage (probably, including  emplyment @ Catholic institutions) for Viagra or Cialis? Last I knew, those druges were not  marketed as aids to fertility.

I find the whole situation sad and disheartening. Didn't go to Mass Saturday. Couldn't stand the hypocricy... although it doesn't come from the priest @ the church where I worship.

Why are most of the posters male?

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