Compromise or Stalemate?

In a March 14 statement (“United for Religious Freedom”), the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly reaffirmed its opposition to the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The committee vowed to press the political, legislative, and legal battle to broaden religious exemptions to the law while also working to repeal the mandate entirely.

On March 16, the Department of Health and Human Services released a tentative proposal [.pdf] elaborating on the “accommodation” announced by President Barack Obama in February. The administration has responded to the objections of religious groups by offering to shift the cost of contraception from religious institutions to insurance companies. Among other details, HHS exempted self-insured student health plans and outlined how other self-insured institutions might comply with the law. It appears that the insurance administrators used by those institutions—or other “independent entities,” possibly including the government—will be asked to pay for and manage contraception coverage for employees of such organizations. The proposed regulations are dauntingly complex, and there will now be a ninety-day period in which HHS solicits comments on how to improve the plan.

One worry shared by many religious groups is that the administration’s narrow definition of “religious employer” opens the door to greater impingements on religious freedom in the future. In its new document, HHS states that the definition “is intended solely for purposes of the contraceptive coverage requirement,” and is not “intended to set a precedent for any other purpose.” What legal weight that declaration carries is unclear. But whatever the shortcomings of the administration’s position (see “An Illiberal Mandate,” January 13), it appears that the religious-liberty concerns of the bishops and others are being taken seriously.

Since the USCCB has rejected the idea of having insurance providers pay for the contraception coverage of those who work for Catholic institutions, it seems unlikely that the bishops will be satisfied with HHS’s latest initiative. Other Catholic institutions will evaluate the moral hazard involved differently. Whether this will lead to further division within the Catholic community depends on all parties eschewing loose talk of a “war on religion” or a “war on women.” There are legitimate values at stake on both sides of this conflict.

In that regard, the USCCB’s statement was a small step forward. The bishops did not accuse Obama of being anti-Catholic or of launching a campaign against religious believers. They did not threaten to stop providing health-insurance to employees or to close Catholic hospitals and universities. They even pledged to remain open to dialogue with the administration. Unfortunately, the statement repeated erroneous claims made by some bishops. For many women, contraception is not inexpensive. The mandate is not an “unprecedented defining of faith communities and their ministries.” Decisions are made all the time about what religious groups qualify for tax exemptions. And there have always been limits to religious freedom. Plural marriage is not possible for Mormons or Muslims, and Jehovah’s witnesses cannot deny blood transfusions to their children or insurance coverage for transfusions to their employees. Nor does the contraception mandate undermine the church’s ability to teach or catechize. Even if Catholic institutions comply with the mandate under duress, they remain free to condemn contraception. And because the decisions to accept contraception coverage and to use contraception are made by the employee, there will be no direct or formal material cooperation with evil for Catholic institutions.

The bishops’ March 14 statement insists that the conference is “strongly unified and intensely focused” in opposition to the mandate and in support of the USCCB’s confrontational strategy. It pointedly thanks “all who have stood firmly with us.” There was a remarkable degree of unity among Catholics in opposing the administration’s initial decision to limit exemptions to diocesan offices, parishes, and parish schools. Obama’s subsequent attempt to forge an accommodation was welcomed by the Catholic Health Association and a number of Catholic universities, but peremptorily rejected by the bishops. A more measured approach to the administration’s belated overture would have had a good chance of keeping the Catholic community united. That unity would have given the bishops the audience and support needed to make an effective case against more serious threats to religious liberty. Most prominent among those impending dangers is the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia, and anti-discrimination suits brought by same-sex couples against religious institutions. Catholic hospitals and universities will face vigorous challenges in these areas. Unfortunately, the bishops and their transparently partisan conservative allies have so far done more to confuse than to clarify this complex issue.

Related: Bad Decision and Bad Reaction, by the Editors



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Your assessment of the situation is balanced and thoughtful.  I remain puzzled by the approach taken by the bishops.  For hundreds of years, Jesuit practice in preparing their students for debate has included a simple and obvious principle: state clearly the strongest position of the opponent; otherwise, counterarguments will be inadequate.  Why have the bishops failed to follow this sound advice?  Nowhere have the bishops stated the basis of the legal requirement to which they object. 

Congress specifically identified women's health care for focused attention.  In accordance with statute, and based on findings of medical authorities that the health care of women will be improved if FDA approved services (which include contraception) are provided without cost-sharing, HHS promulgated the current regulations.  Congress made no exception based on religious liberty, and since the statute addresses the broad issue of women's health it is far from clear that there should be such an exception.

The need for such an exception arises because the mechanism for delivery of women's health services has been employers (and insurance companies), and some employers may have religious objections to delivery of certain of these services.  The obvious path to solution would be to provide avenues of delivery that do not require the participation of employers who have religious scruples, since the services are to be delivered to the woman not to the employer.

But the point not acknowledged by the bishops is the justice of the government's policy conclusion that women's health has been too long neglected and a special effort to provide a comprehensive suite of services is in order.  That's what the statute says.  The President (through HHS) is charged with implementing the statute, not making exceptions to it.  This is why the "religious exemption" is so narrowly drawn.  By failing to acknowledge these circumstances, the bishops appear to be setting up a straw man, which weakens their argument.

And that's a shame, because the bishops need to keep their powder dry for more difficult policy issues that are likely to arise in the long term.  Why split the Catholic community at this juncture?  This is the point you have made so well. 

Your position reminds me of this statement by Edmund Burke:  All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.

There was a time in US history when the population would have fought vigorously against the morality of any of the supposed 'reproductive services' but society has become so inured to evil that now society believes its 'progress'.

An excellent article, and an excellent comment by Mr. Christofferson, above.  I would ask Bruce if he considers contraception 'evil' in every circumstance?  For myself, I take quite the opposite view.  Globally, more harm is done by the absence of women's reproductive health care than by its availability.  The absence of contraception raises poverty, lack of economic choice, lack of self determination, and the rate of abortion.  It is much easier to argue that in the United States, universal contraceptive availablity is not economically necessary than it is to argue that contraception is inherently evil.  IMO

I thought the article well balanced. jbruns' response was interesting, too, who notes that the absence of contraception raises poverty, lowers economic choice, lack of self-determination, etc." Could one also argue that the absence of hand guns will raise crime? Or that the more handguns there are in society, the less crime there will be? It seems so. After the Supreme Court's Heller decision striking down Washington, D.C.'s gun ban, murder plummeted in the city to its lowest rate in half a century. Likewise in an area of Colorado! When the Colorado Supreme Court ruled this month that the University of Colorado's campus ban violated a 2003 state law that allows residents (with permits) to carry weapons on campus, observers noted that it neighboring school, Colorado State University, which never banned hand guns, had a much lower crime rate than the University of Colorado: "crime at the University of Colorado has risen 35% since 2004, while crime at Colorado State University has dropped 60% in the same time frame."


The message seem loud and clear: carry a hand gun and crime will lessen (similar to, carry a condom and poverty will lessen and more economic choices will abound [according to jbuns]). Is this where we're heading? Safer soceity with guns and condoms! What about some Quaker institution in Colorado? Will the sponsors of such a school be forced to provide hand guns to students, or tolerate them on campus, though their institution's ethos is against such a practice?

Personally, I am glad for the Commonwael article -- that it said what it said; but I am also glad for the bsihops' response. Sure they over-reacted, but I'm glad they are doing something then just sit it out and "observe" (until something worse comes up) as the German bishops did in the early 1930's, when National Socialists initiated all kinds of legislation for the good and health of the fatherland and German citizens. So often, religious compromise (of deeply held convictiions) is just the sacrifice of one right or good in the hope of retaining another one, which the German bishops bargained for, sacrificed, hoped for. But they wound up losing both.

I am distressed by the talk of "division." Is the Catholic community divided because some of us subscribe to just war theory and some of us are pacifists? Is the Catholic community divided because some of us are absolutely opposed to capital punishment and others supportive of capital punishment is very limited circumstances? The Catholic community is "divided" over whether to criminalize all abortions, but is (or should not be) divided about the principle of innocents' immunity (which some would apply to all, others to most, abortions). The tactic of making "litmus tests" of prudential political judgments is most harmful. Currently, most bishops seem not to be doing that (thank heaven), but some bloviators are. We need to recognized that we can be diverse in judgment without being divided in principle

Mr Chichetto.  Your statements about gun control are not analogous.  There is actual data that demonstrates the relationship of family size, child survival rates, poverty and economic growth.  For an interesting and entertaining demonstration, spend ten minutes with Hans Rosling:

You can argue the role of contraception in this phenomenon, but its hard to miss the implication.

I'm also distressed with the all the "division" talk.  Catholic used to mean diversity within unity, acknowledging and even celebrating the many gifts of the Holy Spirit, the many parts of the body of Christ.  On abortion, for example, we have those who march and picket and protest and try to effect law change and work in parish programs for troubled pregnant women.  We also have those who work to sustain and increase public programs for mothers and infants.  These programs not only reduce the number of procedural abortions, but also spontaneous abortions due to malnutrition and inadequate pre-natal care, as well as post-natal abortions due to inadequate nutrition and poor post-natal medical care.  Private programs are insufficient.  Can't we acknowledge and celebrate our diversity?  

Maybe not, in large part because of the strong Republican stance against what they decry as socialism, which is doing what Christ asked us to do: care for the most vulnerable among us.  Or, as in this morning's Intercessions in the Liturgy of the Hours: "May we abstain from what we do not really need, and help our brothers and sisters in distress." The most effective way to do this would be to tilt our tax structure a bit, favoring needs over wants. 

As a Catholic I can't vote Republican.  They deny that greed is one of the seven deadly sins and that greed (the love of money) is the root of ALL evil.     

"...the role of contraception...."

Thanks, jbruns. I am aware of Rosling (and the judgments of many others in which their wishes and perspectives are concerned). But this issue is not about contraception, per se. I issue is about the government's resistance to accommodate conflicting and communal values in society. It is about the government saying that religious liberty is not an important right when it comes to the government's ideological policies.

Niebuhr says: "There are no living communities which do not have some notions of justice beyond their historic laws, by which they seek to gauge the justice of their legislative enactments." The bishops (many of whom sit on the boards [of trustees] of Catholic schools, especially Catholic University in D.C.) and presidents of Catholic universities, colleges, institutions,etc. are simply trying to abide by the teachings of the church and guage the justice of their school health care  policies on these teachings. The government, however, wants them to ditch those teachings, embedded in school policies, in favor of its own agenda and policies, thus putting these institutions in the punishment of "evil" (from the church's moral and ethical perspective), besides having religious schools pay for what they don't believe in.

As noted before: if Catholics and non-Catholics want condoms, sterilizations, etc. -- "that's bewteen them and their God," as one hears over and over again; but bishops and leaders of religious orders that sponsor schools and institutions should not have to pay for these items and procedures  if it puts them in antagonism with church teaching and their own consciences (as Catholic leaders). 

Reading THE CHURCH OF AMERICA 1776-2005, it's not surprising to read authors Finke and Stark note the following: "They [Catholic schools] make substantial contributions to scholarship and professional training, but they are not good places for preserving the faith or for the encouragment of religious vocations." How ture! And now the governement these schools to incorporate the distribution of condoms into their health care packages. So much for preserving the faith and church teaching!! The government doesn't give a darn!



James,  In that case, I guess we can just respectfully disagree.  I think the Administration has attempted to find an accomodation, more so than the Bishops.  There is a civic interest here as well.  The religious liberty argument is, in my view, greatly overstated, with the 'evil' of contraceptive use being remote from the actions required of the Bishops. 

"...with the 'evil' of contraceptive use being remore from the actions required of the Bishops."


But from the Bishops' point of view (and the heads of Catholic institutions, especially those self-insured), the government wants to hazard church teaching on church premises, within church institutions, dormitories on the perilous cast or throw of the dice of an alien (or anti-Catholic) government policy. Church teaching is, in part, "beyond historic laws," to quote Niebuhr; there is an indeterminate transcendence to it, to church teaching, which Bishops attempt to gauge the value of their policies, over and above national politics and/or political expediency. Consequently, I don't see how teaching or practice -- in this case, prohibiting the dispensation of condoms on church premises -- is aloof or distant-in-manner from the actions of the Bishops. What did you expect them to do? Go against their church? Even if the Bishops did make up their minds that a certain wrong policy was the "right one" (because the state or secular Administration concurred that is was right [as well as some experts], we know the more they followed their "enlightened" consciences the more helpless they would become as wrongdoers. Helpless because as overseers, as leaders, they would be doing wrong,  conscientiously; going against a teaching they are bound to uphold, thoroughly. (It is different, of course, with a non-Bishop, so to speak; but Bishops [and heads of Catholic institutions] have to think corporately, of the whole church or institutional body, especially a hierarchical body. They have no choice in the matter.  I don't think the current Administration understand this.  


James says" I don't see how teaching or practice -- in this case, prohibiting the dispensation of condoms on church premises'

To say that HHS requires distribution of condoms in churches is ridiculous and you lose everybody by saying that. as do the bishops lose. The bishops' and your exaggerations are being shortened to Henny Penny status... not unlike Romney's Etcher Skecher and if you want tp play  don't complain  about the rules in baseball or the political rules.   


"Hazard church teaching", "on the perilous cast or throw of the dice of an alien (or anti-Catholic) government policy".  My goodness, how wonderful it must be to be divinely inspired in word and deed. A life without uncertainty.The issue at hand is not any in significant way a desire to effect church teaching.  Why would it be? Teaching of any sort is just that, teaching.  I can teach that I am the living personification of the tooth fairy.  Only if others were to believe me would such teaching have an affect outside of becoming great material for SNL.As for either the usefulness or the truth of the utterly grandiose statement of "alien government" I really would like to know from which non-earth planet it originated.  In as much as the truth is we are the government in this remarkable nation, I, understandably, would like to know my alien ancestors better.You quite simply may not present a small portion of Niebuhr's lengthy discussion and present it a timeless, indisputable crystallization of divine truth.To loose sight of the fact the remarkable institution one is attempting with grand and convoluted rhetoric to defend against "aliens" is based on the words and deeds of a fellow who rode a donkey into town seems to me more than a little unhelpful.  It is a simple, useful and verifiable truth that the more one learns the less one knows.BTW, that goodness of spell checking!


"...shortened to Henry Penny status...."


Ed Gleason,


No matter how one looks at it, with this mandate the shadow of two all-encompassing government arms will still fill the space of Catholic premises, dispensing condoms, providing sterilizations, etc.

In that regard, the administration wants bishops and the heads of Catholic universities to support the mandate with silence, following a few steps behind the White House and its experts. If they have problems of conscience, they should carry these wounds or criticisms elsewhere, perhaps to some dark room off campus or behinid a Catholic hospital. But come hell or high water, the government's unforeseen fingers are going to sppon feed Catholic institutions contraceptive care, whether the religious orders that sponsor Catholic schools or the bishops like it or not.

Finally, imposing condoms on Catholic institutions has no more to  do with contraceptive use than bullying has to do with social usefulness between two people. Both are aggressive actions (on the part of the government and bully, respectively), taking unfair advantage of the party that is "different." And although contraceptive use is mirrored in government waters so to speak as healthy and neutral, in Catholic hierarchical waters it is wrong; it suggests that pre-marital sex or extra-marital sex is Gospel-approved or morally neutral, among many other things. And sure, people (both Catholic and non-Catholic alike) are free to make up their own minds about contraception, sterilization,etc; but pointing them in the direction of contraceptive use on Catholic premises is like carving solid blocks of moral neutrality down to the church marrow, hoping Catholic leaders will eventually and quietly take upon them themselves some of the weight of the government's unilateral, coercive decision. This definately complicates church state relations. The government is insisting that its clapper has the "right" to strike a religious bell on church premises.

"...on a fellow who rode a donkey...."


Well, for Christians, that fellow "rose from the dead." On Easter, Christians see an empty tomb. The donkey and the donkey tracks are important, of course, as are the animal  feeder (at Christmas) and the pail and towel (on Holy Thursdsay), but never twice the same in importance as on Easter.


But you're free to leave him on a donkey -- in praise of God's own face, remarkbly glimpsed.

James.. "with this mandate the shadow of two all-encompassing government arms will still fill the space of Catholic premises,'

As R. Reagan said ' there you go again' Please don't go with the 'it's socialism. Muslim infiltration, end of economic freedom, endless government regulation, etc. ' of Tea Party crowd.. it's unbecoming.

It's really about a small co-pay in a free country. ..and not a dime of bishops' or your  money... so get over it

"Please don't go with the ...."


Ed gleason,


I point isn't about one of your "isms." That gives it dead teeth as it were. You're trying to handcuff gloves so to speak -- your own, of your own making, for straw hands.

All I'm saying is that the Administration's mandate is a non-Catholic policy to be thumbtacked on church walls. Purely and simply!! It is written in much larger letters on the walls of state agencies (that could care less about church teaching).

And the Aministration, with the mandate clenched between its teeth, also wants the heads of Catholic universities and bishops to come up with an excuse for what the government intends to do anyway. It doesn't want a hole of silence under the mandate or above it , and certainly no oppostion. It wants the lighted clock in the church to read: government policy sinks church tradition.



I, a life long cradle Catholic and child of Vatican II, am hanging on to institutional Catholicism by a very thin thread that remains of the strong rope of Faith (see Kerlin, pg. 31) instilled in me by Vatican II and its minions of good faitful priests, many of whom left the priesthood in the 70's. I do not believe that the use of "artificial" birth control is an evil or sin. I have so concluded by excercising   my God given and Christ saved, freedom  conscience.

As to "Compromise or Stalemate" Questions:

1) Are not the employees who, with their own freedom of conscience, chose to use the contraception benefit PAID TO THEM as part of their compensation, in fact the person/entity PAYING for the contraception?If not, why not?

2) Since highly compensated employees of RC entities can clearly use part of their pay to buy cotraceptives in order to sin, is it fair to the lower paid employees who do not get "living wages" ,as defined by the Bishops, to have  to suffer economic hardship in order to buy contraceptives and therby sin? Is ther a needle and a camel around here somewhere? 

3)Where is the factual basis for the statement that "There was a remarkable degree of unity among Catholics in opposing the administrations initial decision etc.,"?  

" it fair to the lower paid employees who do not get 'living wages'... to have to suffer... to buy contraceptives...?"


Donald Toohill,

So the mandate should trump church teaching to adjust to the budgets of lower paid employees working at Catholic institutions? (I am trying to follow your logic.) But why should a government stop there? Why shouldn't it use its policies and (secular) decrees to retrench the "sins" within Catholicism (or of any religion, for that matter), especially if it believes what the church calls sin (or offensive) is really good in disguise? I am sure the Administration believes the Catholic Church is overlooking the government's "mercies" that are bound up in its secular policies.

What is hard to understand in all this is why the current Administration wants to load its cannons with the hearts and souls of people (in this case, lower paid employees who favor "contraceptive use") to attack the offical church. Won't that only create more dissention within a hierarchical community? Is that what the Administration wants -- to get Catholics and non-Catholics alike (who favor contraceptive use) to color in or "blur in" a government's uniformity of policy into Catholic institutions, irrespective of church teaching and morality. Won't the traditional values that the Catholic Church wants to preserve within its institutions be given short thrift? What about the mission statements to which employees were supposed to agree when they were first hired? (At one point, too, I thought that the Administration didn't realize that Catholic institutions  cannot survive as "officially Catholic institutions" without the bishops' moral support, encouragement, and sanction. Now I am beginning to wonder.)

In some respects the Administration's resolve is similar to Bismarck's Kulturkampf policy in Germany in the 1870's/80's that deprived Catholics of their clergy, among many other things. It seems that current Administration has given the Kulturkampf a different spin: it wants to deprive Catholic institutions of their bishops, and most certainly, of their bishops' sanction and support (for incorporating government sponsored abortifacients into their healthcare plans, thus violating church teaching.)

Who would have thought the mandate would have had such a negative effect to the point of eliciting bishops and others -- who normally would have lain dormant -- to challenge it.

Maybe this it the future? Besides trumping the practice of animal sacrifice among Santeria followers and peyote practice among Native Americans, the US government has also in the past scaled Jefferson's proverbial wall to trump polygamy in the Mormon Church and the prohibition of blood transfusions in Jehovah Witness congregations. It is nothing new for the government to scale that well known wall separating church and state to nail its policy on the church side (causing a bit of plaster to fall to the ground), believing, in certain instances, that it needs to change church policy, moral doctrine, or re-formulate it according to proper government standards. Other countries do likewise all the time, especially China, which today insists Catholics, like all other Chinese citizens, have only one child per couple. Now the current US Administration wants Catholic institutions to cover contraceptive use in their healthcare plans, not believing abortifacients are immoral, according to government standards.

I am sure, down the road, this issue will ultimately be settled by the Supreme Court.


What is being proposed by the Obama administration is simply that employees have the right to enter into private, third party contracts with insurance companies to obtain riders to their group health insurance policies to provide for contraceptive services, including counseling. It's been pointed out that the health insurance policies are earned compensation -- these policies are bought with the employees' money and not with the employers' money. 

As a precondition for participating in a government-regulated program, the insurance companies are required to offer the conceptive services riders at no cost to employer or employee.  Insurance companies will presumably be willing to do this in order to be able to compete for business and because the riders are expected to pay for themselves, through reduced utilization of services relating to pregnancy.

It is not at all clear that the employer should have any right whatsoever to be able to prevent an employee from entering into a private contract with an insurance company to obtain the contraceptive services rider.   It seems to me that this would, in fact, violate the employee's 14th and 5th Amendment rights to equal protection and due process.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA


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