A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


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.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

The Church often makes mistakes especially when they are confronted with a complex issue and decision of policy that is in tension with its teachings. Inconsistency and even contradiction can manifest itself, as this article directly or indirectly implies that this is the case. Contraception is one example, but there are others.

Consider the decsion of the Archbishop of Connecticut in 2007 that allowed the admininstration of Plan B to rape victiims provided that a pregnancy test was negative. This clearly violated the USCCB guidelines. A pregnancy test will always be negative within a week of rape incident because a pregnancy test can only detect pregnancy after implantation has ocurred. Previously, the Church required a ovulation test. If this test was positive, Plan B was not administered even though ovulation does not necessarily mean fertilization has occurred. However, a postive ovulation test sides with the possiblity of fertilization, albeit a low possiblity, but at least this is a reasonable test of possible pregnancy. So, we have inconsistency and contradiction, that points to either a bad decision or the necessity of responsible reform of a teaching.



Wouldn't it be more generous to politely keep our eyes away from last year's intemperate declarations, and just forget abour the 2012 statements from the US episcopacy? As far as I can tell they haven't harmed anyone except themselves. Now that they may be coming back to more soberness, isn't it better to welcome them rather than rub it in?


The Fortnight for Freedom has been announced again for this year, with an Opening Mass at the US's first cathedral, the Basilica of the Assumption, Baltimore, on 22 June, the feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More. The Mass will be celebrated by Archbishop William Lori, archbishop of Baltimore. The Concluding Mass will be celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, on the Fourth of July at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Washington. As well, there will be observances in many dioceses. I don't see this as a move towards soberness.



If only intemperate declarations were in the past! 

I don't see a "coming back to more soberness" in statements like these from Archbishop Chaput just a few days ago:

"Coupled with the White House’s refusal to uphold the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, and its astonishing disregard for the unique nature of religious freedom displayed by its arguments in a 9-0 defeat in the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor Supreme Court decision, the HHS mandate can only be understood as a form of coercion...

As Mollie Hemingway, Stephen Krason and Wayne Laugesen have all pointed out, the current IRS scandal – involving IRS targeting of “conservative” organizations – also has a religious dimension.  Selective IRS pressure on religious individuals and organizations has drawn very little media attention.  Nor should we expect any, any time soon, for reasons Hemingway outlines for the Intercollegiate Review. But the latest IRS ugliness is a hint of the treatment disfavored religious groups may face in the future, if we sleep through the national discussion of religious liberty now.

The day when Americans could take the Founders’ understanding of religious freedom as a given is over.  We need to wake up."

He sounds like Bill Donohue --desperately trying to hook himself to the IRS mess.  I think Chaput will look very foolish following the whiny lead of Dr. Anne Hendershott regarding IRS targetting "devout Catholics".  She is already changing her story.



I love revivals of great old shows. I got to see My Fair Lady on Broadway in the 1970s, after missing the first run.

So I'm really looking forward to the new F4F with all its flair and drama. I'm sure both the actors and the critics know their lines cold, so there won't be any danger of fresh thought to mar the performance.

Mistake, or the best of the possible alternatives?

Personally I think that providing contraceptives is a lot better than battering women who get pregnant and choose to have an abortion.

I expect that the archdiocese would be exempt from the mandate in any case, even according to the exceedingly narrow religious exception defined in the original contraception mandate?

Let's suppose, for the sake of discussion, that the archdiocese isn't exempt - that the contraception mandate would compel it to pay for its employees contraception, and that the subsequent accommodation wouldn't apply to the archdiocese.  Were that the case, then the archdiocese would be right to point out that there is a moral difference between freely choosing to participate in a plan that includes contraception, and being compelled by an unjust law to provide contraceptive coverage.  None of that would contradict Mollie's point that in the real world, we have to compromise and pick our battles.  


I see. I was thinking of Cdl Dolan's more conciliatory tone in one of the links, the only one from 2013. I agree that Abp. Chaput's words and the F4F smack of grandiose delusion again. Then it would be good if they could answer Mollie's questions.

Imagine for a moment that they believe their own words. Then what could explain the incoherence laid out in the post?

I suppose the danger here is that the hierarchy will see this as an argument against reasonable compromise. "Look! We quietly did the right thing for our employees for ten years in a relatively small matter, and now people are claiming we lack moral standing to inveigh against this much bigger matter!"

No one is piling on. Joseph Zwilling, communications director for the archdiocese, released this statement in response to the story:

"Today’s New York Times story, “Archdiocese Pays for Health Plan That Covers Birth Control,” incorrectly equates the health care benefits of the members of Union 1199 – including those 1199 employees at Catholic facilities – with the Health and Human Services mandate that improperly attempts to define the Church’s religious ministry and could force religious employers to violate their conscience.  The Constitution and other provisions of federal law prohibit the government from imposing the mandate on the Archdiocese.  A labor union is not subject to the same constraints as the federal government in this regard, and so the fact that 1199 requires these benefits as part of its plan does not excuse the government’s violation of the Archdiocese’s federal rights.

What the 1199 health plan and the HHS mandate share is that the Archdiocese has objected to the dilemma of choosing between providing health care to employees or violating its sincere religious beliefs in both instances.  ArchCare did not exist at the time the contract with 1199 was finalized.  When ArchCare was formed, it inherited this situation and objected to these services being included in the 1199 health plan.  However, ArchCare had no other option but to pay into the fund which administers the union members’ benefits “under protest” to continue to offer insurance to its union workers and remain in the health care field in New York.  Similarly, the Archdiocese has attempted to negotiate with the Administration, advocated for a change in legislation in the Congress, and filed a lawsuit last May objecting to the HHS mandate.  In all cases where the health insurance benefit plan is under the control of the Archdiocese, including for all non-union ArchCare employees, contraceptive care services are not provided."

Keep it clear. In the federal case the bishops state that they cannot do it in conscience. While in the Archdiocese of NY they do comply conscience or no conscience. Clear as day  and clearly hypocriticial. But of course "the church has always taught." While the issue is not black and white the duplicity of Dolan is. 

1. Re: HHS mandate


See article by Law Professor Thomas Berg about (and link to) Amicus Brief by Bart Stupak and Democrats for Life


2. Re:  IRS targeting scandal,




See also “A Crisis of Authority - The deeper meaning of the Obama scandals.”


“Liberal media bias is an old complaint, but the Obama presidency has given it a new and dangerous form. Never has the prevailing bias of the media been so closely aligned with the ideological aims and political interests of the party in power. The American media remain free and independent, or you would not be reading this column. But to a large extent they have functioned for the past few years as if they were under state control.


“The problem of media bias runs deep, and it often does not take the form of open partisanship. Here's an example, from a Washington Post story on the IRS scandal:


“Nonprofit groups that do not have to pay taxes are supposed to ensure that political activity is not their primary purpose, so evidence that some of the new organizations seeking tax-exempt status were fronts for campaign organizations drew bipartisan interest. Good-government groups started pressuring the IRS to more closely scrutinize applicants. One such group, Democracy 21, wrote a series of letters to the IRS arguing that many of the groups should not receive favored tax status.


" ‘In all of these cases, the groups were claiming (c)(4) status basically for the purpose of hiding their donors,’ said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer.


“There's a whole world of bias in that phrase ‘good-government groups.’ According to the Inspector General's report, one of the red flags the IRS used to identify dissident organizations for targeting was "education of the public via advocacy/lobbying to 'make America a better place to live.' "  Tea Party organizations conceive of themselves as good-government groups, just as Democracy 21 does. The Post accepts the latter characterization, but not the former, unquestioningly.


“The description of Democracy 21 as a "good-government group" is especially inapt in this particular story. Wertheimer's organization wrote letters lobbying the IRS to take action against political groups of whose activities it disapproved. The IRS did Wertheimer's bidding, and in so doing massively abused its power. The IRS, not Wertheimer, is culpable for the abuse of power. But it is preposterous to label Democracy 21 "a good-government group" in the course of telling how its activities encouraged an abuse of governmental power.


" ‘Good-government group’ is a misleading designation for another reason. As we noted last week, Democracy 21 is itself a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) corporation. In lobbying the IRS to investigate nonprofits for engaging in political activity, Democracy 21, a nonprofit, was engaging in political activity.


“That's not ‘good government,’ it's rent-seeking.”

Abortion is NEVER a good outcome.  But, unfortunately in this imperfect world, it is sometimes the best outcome that a woman can choose from among the myriad poorer choices facing a woman.  

That is why neither government nor meddling clerics should try to inject themselves into this decision.  This decision is best left to the woman, consulting her medical professionals, to figure out what is the best decision for her in her life, given her health needs and the needs of her family.  

It's the ultimate personal choice for a woman - the ultimate demonstration of independent self-agency.  Our personal choices is after all what makes us most human. Hence, we should all be pro-choice.

If Catholic hierarchs are really so concerned about the "right to life" and not posturing politically for their oligarchy in Rome, then they should abandon their anti-feminine ideology by promoting reproductive health care through contraception.  

Heirarchs should also use their "teaching magisterium" to convince Catholic families to begin adopting all those children into their birth-controlled-small-families, all those children whose mothers' chose not to abort, and who are now languishing in the child welfare systems across the nation where their futures are threatened and where they are more likely to be exploited.

To quote from the Wall Street Journal about liberal media bias is a bit of a reach, don't you think?

Or do they actually think that their positions are "fair and balanced?"

Really, now!

Many gay and lesbian couples do indeed adopt these children.  From what I have read a large portion of these adoptions include children not considered "desirable" by many other parents, i..e, fetal alcohol syndrome, drug addicted, otherwise disabled.

But don't worry ... darned few choose to go through the agony of fighting with this church to do so.  There are plenty of adoption sites that welcome qualified parents, irrespective of color or sexual orientation.

Because my parish doesn't DARE put anything in our website that would inflame the delicate sensitibilities of the always-lurking theocons who are looking for something to rant to Abp. Cordileone about (oh, they do so love to do that and do whenever they get the chance!), I can't copy you on a heart-warming (and rending) letter from 2 men who have adopted 2 boys who are born to a drug-addicted mother.  Our parish donated money to the parochial school that educates these boys in their names.  The school was delighted and the parents were overwhelmed.  They have had a very tough time as these children age because of the lingering effects of their birth-mother's addictioin.

These 2 boys are not blonde, blue-eyed, Aryan types that are so high on the "highly desirable" lists of most adoption agencies. 

Like so many of the discussions I find so informattve here on commonweal this one revolves a great deal around of the questions of who said what when and what was and was not meant.  Stating the obvious I believe useful clarity can be gained simply by considering the source of so much of the challenges driving this particular debate, the efforts of Timothy Dolan.

Catholicism can claim within its remarkable fold more than a few Timothy Dolans.  He is hardly unique.  He is, in fact, a near stereotype.

Catholicism can also claim within its remarkable fold the likes of Oscar Romero.  An very uncommon fellow.

One does his best to speak for the Church the other did his best to speak for God.  One struggles to find his place in the world, the other had figured it out.

Knowing this to be true it is impossible not to wonder why so much effort is spent considering the value of Dolan and so little the value of Romero.  If the person holding the podium claiming to speak to ultimate truths is stating significant contradictions what exactly is to be accomplished in a dissection of his words other than an affirmation of the obvious? 

Face it: In these uber ideological, post-everything times, overstating cases and making mountains out of molehills is the favored language of the realm.  At least to a good part of it.  How else will we explain the so-called "scandals" of Obama's second term to future generations of history students who have to compare IRS investigations of partisan groups and the hoopla over who called what an act of terrorism and when did he/she call it with previous presidential scandals that involved, say, selling arms to enemy states or money laundering by the powers-that-be?  In light of all the rest, the American bishops' "Fortnight of Freedom" offensives should fit right in.

I have prayed for understanding of where the Church is going lead it's congregation during the change in  morality in the modern culture and I have concluded that many of us believe the Church to be physically and spiritually separated from it's members as if we are a different church.

Through prayer and study I understand that WE are God's Church and WE are in a great period of our own choosing. We must decide if we are truly God's chosen people and if so we must read the Gospels and must embrace Jesus as our Savior and show our faith through our actions and involvement in our Church, families and communities.

Have we decided to let government or "modern society" decide who we are as Christians? We must let our faith in God define us as Catholics and show by example to our families and communities that we will stand arm in arm as children of God and profess loudly that our love for God and each other is stronger than the laws of men.

Jesus spoke for God the Father, for our salvation and he suffered and died for that. Have we become too afraid to profess and show our faith thus putting Catholicism on the same cross?

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment