News on the HHS mandate?

Following a closed-door discussion of the contraception mandate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an unsigned (but unanimousy passed) "special message" that, for the most part, sounded a familiar tune. So why does religion-journalism watchdog Terry Mattingly think the media dropped the ball by not focusing on this "crucial" statement? Does this look new to you?

Beginning in March 2012, in United for Religious Freedom, we identified three basic problems with the HHS mandate: it establishes a false architecture of religious liberty that excludes our ministries and so reduces freedom of religion to freedom of worship; it compels our ministries to participate in providing employees with abortifacient drugs and devices, sterilization, and contraception, which violates our deeply-held beliefs; and it compels our faithful people in business to act against our teachings, failing to provide them any exemption at all.

This is more or less what the USCCB has been saying since the original, onerous form of the mandate dropped. The bishops restate their plan to pursue relief legislatively (not going anywhere) and judicially (maybe going somewhere). We've heard this before.

This new statement has nothing to say about the Obama administration's revision of the mandate, which allows dioceses, churches, parish schools, etc. to opt out completely. That is, such institutions are not required to provide contraception coverage to their employees--and their employees are not eligible to receive free contraception coverage from a third party. "Accommodated" institutions (such as Catholic hospitals and universities) you'll recall, do not have to contract for contraception coverage, but their employees can receive it from a third party at no cost to them.

No news there.

Nor does the statement take up the difficult question of how emergency contraception can act as an abortifacient. The bishops just keep asserting that the mandate forces their ministries "to participate in providing" their employees with "abortifacient drugs." (Never mind that every time they make a payment to a major insurance provider, they're "participating in" providing actual abortion coverage to any number of women.) That makes it sound like the mandate includes coverage for RU-486. It doesn't. It covers FDA-approved forms of emergency contraception, Plan B and Ella. The former doesn't seem to have any abortifacient properties. Indeed, in 2007 the current head of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty allowed Catholic hospitals in his state to dispense Plan B to rape victims). And the USCCB's own Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health-care Services allows that rape victims "may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization." What about Ella? Recent studies do not conclusively show that it works as an abortifacient. But the bishops keep saying the mandate includes coverage for abortion drugs.

Again, not news. The bishops have been mum on this question from day one.

Yet Mattingly is miffed that outlets like the Baltimore Sun and the New York Times haven't paid more attention to this statement. "For those who want to know what the bishops had to say," he writes, "I would suggest doing what serious news readers have been doing for sometime now when it comes to the nuts and bolts of Catholic life." He continues in the comment thread: "It is news that they decided to fight on--which means the side of the argument willing to accept the compromise lost. That's VERY important in the worlds of Catholic higher education and hospitals."

Yes, let us muster every ounce of seriousness we can and reflect for a moment on the "nuts and bolts of Catholic life." Such reflection might produce the insight that Catholic bishops do not control the vast majority of Catholic colleges and hospitals. Most of those institutions are controlled by lay boards and sponsored by religious orders. And many of them have been providing contraception coverage to employees for quite some time. Perhaps the "serious news readers" might do some homework and educate the less serious readers among us about just whom the USCCB is fighting for.

Of course, there is some news in the USCCB's statement. But Mattingly misses it.

As the government’s implementation of the mandate against us approaches, we bishops stand united in our resolve to resist this heavy burden and protect our religious freedom. Even as each bishop struggles to address the mandate, together we are striving to develop alternate avenues of response to this difficult situation.

That's episcopal-speak for, "Each bishop can do as he pleases." In other words: not all bishops want to follow the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty all the way to the Supreme Court. It doesn't take much seriousness to know that some bishops have even expressed cautious optimism about the latest form of the mandate--just the will to Google.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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Oh, the humanity!

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