Peacemaking on Contraception

An End to America's Big Religious War?

America's Big Religious War ended on Friday. Or at least it ought to.

A little more than a year ago, the Obama administration set off a bitter and unnecessary clash with the Roman Catholic Church over rules mandating broad contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The Department of Health and Human Services' announcement of new regulations is a clear statement that President Obama never wanted this fight.

The decision ought to be taken by the nation's Catholic bishops as a victory, because it is. Many in their ranks, including some of the country's most prominent prelates, are inclined to do just that -- even if the most conservative bishops seem to want to keep the battle raging.

But more importantly, the final HHS rules are the product of a genuine and heartfelt struggle over the meaning of religious liberty in a pluralistic society. The contraception dispute was difficult because legitimate claims and interests were in conflict.

The vast majority of Americans believe that health insurance should cover contraception. At the same time, the Catholic Church has a theological objection to contraception, even if most Catholics (including regular churchgoers) disagree with its position. The church insisted that its vast array of charitable, educational, and medical institutions should be exempt from the contraception requirement.

The church made a mistake in arguing its case on the grounds of "religious liberty." By inflating their legitimate desire for accommodation into a liberty claim, the bishops implied that the freedom not to pay for birth control rose to the same level, as say, the freedoms to worship or to preach the faith. This led to wild rhetorical excesses, including a comparison of Obama to Hitler and Stalin by one bishop, and an analogy between the president's approach and the Soviet constitution by another.

But the church had good reason to object to the narrowness of the HHS' original definition of what constituted a religious organization entitled to exemptions from the contraception requirement. If a religious organization did not have "the inculcation of religious values" as its purpose and did not primarily employ or serve those who shared the faith, it got no exclusion at all.

The problem is that the vast charitable work done by religious organizations to help millions, regardless of their faith, is manifestly inspired by religion. The church could not abide the implicit reduction of its role merely to private expressions of faith. Don't most Americans devoutly wish that religious people will be moved by their beliefs to works of charity and justice?

The HHS rules announced Friday scrapped this offensive definition in favor of long-established language in the IRS code. In an interview, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius showed a becoming humility, and it would be nice if this encouraged the same among her critics. However defensible the original rules might have been, she said, "they really caused more anxiety and conflict than was appropriate."

"What we've learned," she said, "is that there are issues to balance in this area. There were issues of religious freedom on two sides of the ledger" -- the freedom of the religious institutions and the freedom of their employees who might not share their objections to contraception.

This is where the other accommodation kicked in: Many Catholic institutions self-insure. While the administration wants hospital workers, teachers, and others to have full access to contraception, it also seeks to keep religious organizations from having "to contract, arrange, pay or refer for any contraception coverage to which they object on religious grounds."

Under the new rules, employees who want it will be able to get stand-alone coverage from a third party. Some of the costs will be covered by small offsets in the fees insurers will have to pay to participate in the new exchanges where their policies will be on sale. It's an elegant fix.

There are two reasons for hope here, particularly for Catholic progressives. First, the administration recognized the problem it had created and resolved it. Vice President Biden, among others, kept lines of communication with the church open.

Second, many bishops have come to realize that the appearance of a state of war with Obama not only troubled many of the faithful -- Obama, after all, narrowly carried the Catholic vote -- but also threatened to cast a church with strong commitments to immigrants, social justice, and nonviolence as a partisan, even right-wing organization.

This war has been bad for everyone involved. Obama has moved to end it. Here's a prayer the bishops will also be instruments of peace.

 (c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group



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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"  threatened to cast a church with strong commitments to immigrants, social justice, and nonviolence as a partisan, even right-wing organization."

But it has become that, Blanche .. it has become that!


I would not expect National Review or Lifesite to say anything positive about this latest overture by the Obama administration.


The source of information does not determine its validity.

JH ... but the source DOES reflect in innate bias as to what is said and how it is said.

I still maintain as a Catholic University educated Catholic Lawyer: that the gist of the Churches position unduley impacts the poor and deprives them of the "religious" freedom to use or not to use artificial contraceptives as their "free religious consiences" may dictate. AMEN

Can't we guess how this is going to go over?  I'd like to hear of a creative "overture" from the bishops to the HHS for a change.

Dionne consistently assumes that the Democratic Party, overall, is more consistent with Catholicism than the Republican party, despite Democratic advocacy of abortion and a fiscal policy and monetary policy that threatens to make the welfare state he wants insupportable. It isn't just the inconsistency of this that bothers me, but the intellectual dishonesty of refusing to address the inconsistencies. I'm not advocating a Republican position. What I don't see is a Catholic position or the commonsense understanding that optimal politcal solutions may be less than ideal, and that the attempt to realize the ideal may result in less than the optimal.

I do think that the new accommodation is a very good sign.  And I think Mr. Dionne's call to opponents of the mandate, even the revised mandate, to be more temperate in their response is valid (although fairness requires an admission that most of the intemperate response has not been from the bishops as intimated, that the response from most bishops and from the USCCB have been fairly measured, and that the "Hitler" comparisons are the exception not the norm).

However, I think it a mistake to say that this shouldn't be couched in terms of religious freedom.  What kind of religious freedom do we have if the government can force us to participate in something that goes against our religious beliefs?  It is good to see that Sabellius is starting to see that rights must be balanced, but that balance has not been struck.  It is debateable whether access to free contraception it is even a right, it is unbelievable that such a right would outweigh the right to religious freedom.  And the right to religious freedom is not a right only guaranteed to the institutions large enough to fight back against governmental intrusion, it is an individual right.  The current accommodation does not respect religious liberty, it only respects the power of institutions large enough to give the administration trouble.  The government has many other paths to expand contraceptive coverage that don't directly impinge on religious freedom.  The government uses tax dollars to do all sorts of things that go against my religious beliefs (such as the Adminstration's assassination of American citizens without due process of law but with substantial civilian casualties), that is truly remote cooperation with evil.  If the expansion of contraception access is really important, then why not do it that way .. a way that is far more straight-forward and well-tested way.  The reason that a way has been chosen that disproportionately impacts the opponents of the policy reveals that impinging on religious liberty is not a bug, it's a feature.

Hi Craig,

Statements like the following go beyond  the insulting to rise to the level of the incendiary:

"...Democratic advocacy of abortion..."

Do you have any idea at all how hurtful such a statement is to those of us who tend to find ourselves supporting Democratic Party positions?  Why must you put it in such terms?  How many Democrats "advocate abortion?"  Does Biden?  Does Pelosi?  Do I?  Well, you just said that I do, and I react viscerally and personally to such an accusation.

What it really comes down to is whether or not one supports the criminalization of abortion, not whether one "advocates" abortion.

  Catholics have a certain definition of life.  Life begins at conception.  A fertilized egg is a baby. An embryo is a baby. A fetus is a baby.  Ensoulment begins at the moment of conception.  It's an entirely valid point of view.  Joe Biden says that he accepts this point of view, as a matter of personal morality, informed by his Church.

But other people, of different faiths, hold different points of view, defendable by their own scripture, religious teachings, science, culture, and history.  These people do not define babyhood in the same terms as those accepted by Catholics.

Anti-abortion laws are enforced by punishment -- formerly harsh punishment, in the days prior to Roe v Wade.

It's not accurate and it's a finger in the eye to accuse Joe Biden and all other Democrats of being advocates of abortion.  Rather, it's Biden's (other others') position that they cannot support turning individual women and their doctors into criminals, enforced at the point of a gun, ultimately, as is the case with all criminal law, because the women and doctors do not accept the Catholic definition of babyhood, based up their own personal belief systems, which are, again, every bit as defensible on the basis of their scripture, religious teachings, science, culture, and history as is the Catholic belief system.

Religious freedom is a meaningless term if it is reserved only for one's own personal creed.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA




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