Contraception Cudgel

Catholicism is not the Tea Party at prayer

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops will make an important decision this week: Do they want to defend the church's legitimate interest in religious autonomy, or do they want to wage an election-year war against President Barack Obama? And do the most conservative bishops want to junk the Roman Catholic Church as we have known it, with its deep commitment to both life and social justice, and turn it into the Tea Party at prayer?

These are the issues confronting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' administrative committee when it begins a two-day meeting tomorrow. The bishops should ponder how they transformed a moment of exceptional Catholic unity into an occasion for recrimination and anger.

When the Department of Health and Human Services initially issued rules requiring contraceptive services to be covered under the new health-care law, it effectively exempted churches and other houses of worship but declined to do so for religiously affiliated entities such as hospitals, universities, and social-welfare organizations. Catholics across the political spectrum -- including liberals like me -- demanded a broader exemption, on the theory that government should honor the religious character of the educational and social service institutions closely connected to faith traditions.

Under pressure, Obama announced a compromise on February 10. It still mandated contraception coverage, but religiously affiliated groups would neither have to pay for it nor refer its employees to alternatives. These burdens would be on insurance companies. The compromise was quickly endorsed by the Catholic Health Association. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the president of the bishops conference, reserved judgment but called Obama's move "a first step in the right direction."

Then, right-wing bishops and allied staff at the bishops conference took control. For weeks, Catholics at Sunday Mass were confronted with attacks that, at the most extreme, cast administration officials as communist-style apparatchiks intent on destroying Roman Catholicism.

You think I exaggerate? In his diocesan newspaper, Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, wrote: "The provision of health care should not demand 'giving up' religious liberty. Liberty of religion is more than freedom of worship. Freedom of worship was guaranteed in the Constitution of the former Soviet Union. You could go to church, if you could find one. The church, however, could do nothing except conduct religious rites in places of worship -- no schools, religious publications, health care institutions, organized charity, ministry for justice and the works of mercy that flow naturally from a living faith. All of these were co-opted by the government. We fought a long Cold War to defeat that vision of society." My goodness, does Obama want to bring the Commies back?

Cardinal Dolan is more moderate than Cardinal George, but he offered an unfortunate metaphor in a March 3 speech on Long Island. "I suppose we could say there might be some doctor who would say to a man who is suffering some sort of sexual dysfunction, 'You ought to start visiting a prostitute to help you, and I will write you a prescription, and I hope the government will pay for it.'" Did Cardinal Dolan really want to suggest to faithfully married Catholic women and men who decide to limit the size of their families that there is any moral equivalence between wanting contraception coverage and visiting a prostitute? Presumably not. But then why even reach for such an outlandish comparison?

Opposition in the church to extreme rhetoric is growing. Moderate and progressive bishops are alarmed that Catholicism's deep commitment to social justice is being shunted aside in this single-minded and exceptionally narrow focus on the health-care exemption. A wise priest of my acquaintance offered the bishops some excellent questions about the church. 

"Is it abandoning its historical style of being a leaven in society to become a strident critic of government?" he asked. "Have the bishops given up on their conviction that there can be disagreement among Catholics on the application of principle to policy? Do they now believe that there must be unanimity even on political strategy?"

The bishops have legitimate concerns about the Obama compromise, including how to deal with self-insured entities and whether the wording of the HHS rule still fails to recognize the religious character of the church's charitable work. But before the bishops accuse Obama of being an enemy of the faith, they might look for a settlement that's within reach -- one that would give the church the accommodations it needs while offering women the health coverage they need. I don't see any Communist plots in this.

(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

Related: Bad Reaction, by the Editors


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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Mr Dionne is, as usual, a calm voice in this debate.  I do think, however, that there is more partisan politics being played here by the Bishops than reasoned moral theology.  Catholic institutions, which are apparently not prohibited in investments in contraceptive manufacturers, are not being required to directly pay for contraceptive services.  They should have accepted victory and moved on to more critical moral issues.

I do not sense that the bishops want a reasonable compromise.  They want a fight and they want a win.  I do believe that they are still smarting about the Affordable Care Act and their failure at defeating it with an imaginary worry that Catholic hospitals would be forced to perform abortions.  Their conflation of contraception with abortion is telling, as in labeling the morning after pills as "abortive."  They are not.  Either they haven't bothered to educate themselves on the difference or they are using it as a hammer to kill the preventive care mandate.  At the time that the Affordable Health Care Act was being debated, I had wondered why the bishops were not demanding that all catholics leave their private health care plans, most which cover abortion.  When money is pooled, we are all in and don't get the luxury of opting out.  Good or bad, I don't know.  It's just reality in the same way that our tax dollars go to building bombs and drones whether we approve or not. 

Would Cardinal George put the Chicago Archdiocese in play to help Santorum win next weeks primary in Illinois as Chris Matthews and others think is possible? My suggestion is for the Cardinal find a reason to go to Rome . This BC political fight is a lose lose  not just for Cdl George but for Catholic participation in the public square. ..Even if you have an extraordinary win over HHS, what do you do with the 98% of Catholic women who will continue to use BC? The only pat on the back would be a push toward retirement. Beware lame ducks.. [75 already]

Apparently you didn't get enough "use" out of the Cardinal's picture. You really seem to like it quite a bit, somewhat like President George Bush having the episode of projectile vomiting at the Japanese dinner. It is said that the man who engages in abuse is the man who has run out of ideas.

For months, I followed the bishops' complaints about the HHS mandate, and then the President announced his compromise, and suddenly, it wasn't about extending their religious exemption anymore; oh no, it was about THIS, and then THIS, and no wait a minute, actually,THIS.  Needless to say, they lost me.  Now, their message is coming in all too clearly: These aren't our parents' bishops anymore; they've been courted by Republicans and won.  They're not going to be happy until Obama is out of the White House, where they belong. I'd just like to know if they're all of one mind. Did any one keep his miter while the rest were losing theirs?

Beverly,  I agree, you are lost.  The argument hasnt changed; the president confused you with his 'non-accommodation'.  The issue was never about paying for the coverage.  It was and remains about being a party to the coverage and the proposed accommodations dont address that issue.  If the administration wanted to seriously address the issue, the accommodations would deal with expanding the types of exempted institutions but instead they propose ways of forcing others involved to supply the services all the while leaving the religious institutions at the center through the underlying policy. And all this is happening in an environment of cheap ubiquitious contraceptives.  That tells you its about government power, not about health care benefits.

Well, Bruce, I think you're at least a little clearer in your presentation than the bishops have been, ever.  The question is are you right?   If the issue were merely an institution's being "party" to the coverage, how could the bishops NOT be satisfied with the administration taking all responsibility for  coverage entirely away from church-related institutions and putting the burden for all (paying and offering) on insurance companies alone? Sure, the employers' names are on the plans, but those plans aren't covering contraception, the insurance companies are.  Employees have to go directly to them.

In these situations, unlike the situations involving churches and church schools, most employees involved are non-Catholic, which means the President had two groups of citizens with rights on the line; he had to come up with a way to protect both.  If merely being party to coverage were the only issue, I don't see how the bishops could possibly object to the solution he found.  The institutions involved certainly didn't.  Only the bishops. 

Of course, when the bishops talk about being "party" to coverage, they now define the term so broadly that virtually anybody who pays into an insurance plan owned by an insurance company that pays for contraception (or abortion) through any of its plans could be said to be "party" to "evil,"  since somebody somewhere is getting "evil" coverage through that insurance company.  Even those of us who don't have any health coverage at all might be considered "party," since the federal government subsidizes many employer-paid plans, which means are tax dollars go to keep the whole system running.

No, they've kept upping the ante and changing the subject to the point where the President can't possibly give them what they say they want without risking doing something unconstitutional himself.   The writing's on the wall.

The Vatican's been known to do this sort of thing in Italy -- provoke a religious "crisis" in an election year to influence the Catholic vote.  It just never happened here.  The bishops used to be very careful NOT to get into political fights, much less have statements read in church that seem to tell people to vote for a particular political party.  Not so anymore.  The leadership of the USCCB clearly misses their old place of privilege in the Bush administration.  Obama's an interloper they can't control; hence, the hostility no matter what he does. 


"The Vatican's been known to do this sort of thing in Italy -- provoke a religious "crisis" in an election year to influence the Catholic vote. "

For the record, I'm not saying the bishops provoked this out of the blue, only that once the issue got up a head of steam, they recognized the potential...and kept on stoking, as it were.

My goodness, Bruce.  It is quite clear we have more than enough males in this remarkable nation doing their utmost to present all males as myopic, uninformed, spoiled children.  No more assistance in that arena is required.  That it is not merely unwise but literally impossible to have one's cake and eat it too is a truth whether one both defines and defends it based largely on useful faith or known science.  You simply may not rightly find shelter in the broad comfort of a the best intentions of a faith based on the remarkable parables of a timeless messenger and then expect to do a better job by resorting to hyperbolic rationalizations.

In terms more connected to the realities of today's world, you may not have your viagra while complaining your partner is every bit the mere mortal you are.

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