Obama's Catholic Friends & Foes

Contraception battle puts White House in crossfire

Any time the Obama administration touches issues related to the Roman Catholic Church, it seems to get itself caught in a rhetorical and moral crossfire that leaves all involved wounded and angry. This is what's happening in the battle over how contraception should be covered under the new health-care law. Partly because it mishandled the issue at the outset, the Obama team seems destined either to leave supporters in the reproductive rights community irate, or to put the president's Catholic sympathizers in a much weakened position.

When Congress enacted health reform, it left to the Department of Health and Human Services the job of determining which preventive services for women insurance plans would be required to include. In August, the administration announced interim rules requiring coverage for contraceptive services without co-pays or deductibles. It provided an exemption from this requirement to "religious employers," but the exemption was so narrow that it largely left out Catholic hospitals, universities, and other church-affiliated institutions.

Although this was only an interim rule, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops immediately denounced it, and Catholics who had supported the health-care law were taken by surprise. It's astonishing that the administration acted without closely consulting Sr. Carol Keehan, the brave president of the Catholic Health Association who backed the health-care bill despite the opposition it drew from the bishops conference. Her support -- along with help from other social justice Catholics such as Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) -- was crucial to getting the law through.

If HHS had offered a broader religious exemption from the outset, President Obama could still have boasted of having achieved the largest expansion of contraception coverage in the nation's history. Yet in moving now toward correcting its initial mistake, the administration has set off an uprising among reproductive-rights groups who accuse it with caving in to the Catholic bishops. They demand that the original rule stand.

Right-wing bishops aren't helping the cause of compromise with their incessant charges that the Obama team harbors an anti-Catholic animus. This view gained ground when the administration ended a grant to the bishops for a program assisting the victims of human trafficking because it did not provide contraception and abortion referrals. Stopping that funding was a mistake, but the White House has reason to bridle at allegations of anti-Catholicism, given how much it has actually increased financing for many leading Catholic groups.

Administration calculations show, for example, that federal funding for Catholic Relief Services went from roughly $198 million in 2007 to $362 million in 2010. Catholic Charities affiliates have seen an increase in federal help of more than $100 million since 2008. The polemical overkill on the right end of the bishops conference is not justified and only feeds a belief among Democrats that compromise with the church is pointless because the most conservative bishops will continue their attacks no matter what Obama does.

But the question of what a fair and principled compromise would look like on contraception and the health-care law should not be lost in the political maelstrom. Even an expanded exemption covering Catholic hospitals and universities would still go far beyond what the bishops have called for, as Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, chairman of their Committee on Pro-Life Activities, made clear in a September statement opposing mandated contraception coverage altogether.

Far from constituting a "cave-in" to the bishops, in other words, a broader exemption would be a modest concession honoring the rights of religious institutions that liberals and Obama have long respected. And as Sr. Carol noted in an interview, "we're not talking about taking away from women anything they have," since Catholic institutions that don't cover contraception now wouldn't cover it in any event.

Catholic bishops need to lower the rhetorical temperature -- as the head of the bishops conference, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, seems to be trying to do. Advocates of reproductive rights need to do the same.

If the administration is pressured into refusing any accommodation on the contraception rules, the people who will be undercut most are progressive Catholics who went out on a limb to support the health-care law and those bishops holding the line against the Catholic right by standing up for the church's commitment to social justice. This will only strengthen the most conservative forces inside the Catholic Church. That can't be what advocates of reproductive rights really want. 

(c) 2011, 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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Thank you, EJ, for your judicious effort at preventing unnecessary conflicts between the US bishops and the Obama administration. The recent NCR article by Michael Sean Winters, entitled, "Obama's Choice" , and related comments suggest it may be too late to avoid an election year conflict. Please see,   http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/obamas-choice

When it comes to contraception, the hierarchy has taken the most conservative possible view which they try to stuff down everybody's throat.  But thoughtful ethical people of different faiths disagree.   Somehow in a pluralistic world, we have to find a better approach. 

You have to hand it to the hierarchs, they do know how to play politics - it's all they live for!

It's pretty obvious that the intention of the hierarchs was to drive a political wedge between President Obama and his progressive Catholic supporters.  The hierarchs have never been motivated by any concerns for the reproductive health care needs of especially poor women - the science confirms that contraception is good for women on almost every meaningful indicator, especially in health and economics.

The hierarchs are all about politics both inside and outside the Catholic community.  The 'inside politics' demands hierarchs to posture for their Vatican patrons on their journeys up the clerical ladder - and take some good swipes at women while their at it. The 'outside politics' requires hierarchs take every opportunity to stick it to their perceived enemies in the culture wars - again, mostly those who advocate for women's reproductive health rights.

One can almost imagine Obama's reaction when he became aware that the hierarchs, despite all the ways Obama has tried to make nice with them, still insists on playing the hardest of hardball politics.

I'm somewhat sympathetic to the president's political perdicament:  Obama needs the votes of dead-ender 'pew' Catholics still in the mythic thrall of the hierarchs in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan if he is to get re-elected.

I'm resigned that the President will do what he has to make nice with the hierarchs so that he can finesse this issue until after the election when women's health advocates will have a stronger political position - when he won't have to face the political pressurers of another reelection campaign, and when the actual implementation of the Affordable Healthcare Act will be underway.

Right now, Obama needs to be focused on his reelection and not the political antics of the hierarchs.

If this serves to awaken Democratic strategists to the growing influence of politically rightwing bishops inside the US Church,  the long-range result of this particular goof could be positive.  These aren't the same first-generation American bishops who stood with the unions and demanded universal health care and "a minimum family wage."  US Church leaders, like their followers, are acclimating to the culture around them, values and all.  Ironically, that old bugaboo the Vatican and its "foreign influence" may be the progressives' best hope in the end.


I am going to share a true story about this Health Care Bill, and as a Tea Party American who helped President Obama into Office, and my fight against this Bill To Law.One would think that one could not bring a fight against this Government all by them self, but it would need the touch of a dyslectic mind to see into issue of this Bill not seen by you.As DNA Testing goes forward on children unborn and born so that Health Care Companies and pick and chose the best and dump the rest. You say impossible because of the Law within that Bill.As the attempt goes forward to force Health Care Companies to cover the Sick, companies now see the failures of their system because of the cost then this means Government must put forward Bailouts and even as they attempt to pay off this Bailout the system failure is still going to happen. So why would our Government System want the failure of Health Care Companies ? This Health Care System is a $100 Trillion Dollar System per year not profit. At the same time a 10% Tax would go forward against that part of the Health Care System causing more cost increase.Then as I dug deeper I found where the System paid for Oxy Heroin with your Tax Dollars. You may say so what ? will this is why.2nd Debit Issue, between Canada and the USA, 1.2 million people died from Oxy Heroin. June 30, 2011, C-Span-3 on TV, the Capital Hill, Director Senator Sheldon, Senate Judiciary Sub Committee for Crime and Terrorism. Announcement Oxy. Heroin, this Heroin Health Care Concept, in 2007 that 27,000 Americans died, from this Opioid. So if this Oxy Heroin is so good for the economy, where is the money ?Then you have the 10% cost against your yearly income at gross....The Union helped bring forward this Bill but now they want out because of the cost which is in the Trillions of Tax Dollars to a Federal System that not only miss used around $100 Trillion Dollars in the last 10 years, but it is said that $25 Trillion is missing from out Social Security Funds.So I posted Where Is Our Money Bolo Alert / byMassingale on the net and its covering the Net because what I write I make sure it is true first.I built a honest Health Care Concept for President Obama and Ill be damned if they saw only the $ and not the economic adjustment built within.27 States filed a Un-Constitutional Suite against this Bill and I will not rest until it reaches 40 States.Now The Democrat Party tried to put a Supreme Court Judge in place in support of this Bill, but before this happened I brought forward a Internet catch that people liked, it was called, "I Have This Scared Little Health Care Bug In My Hands"I hammered the Internet and then I was sent a notice of what they did, so I wrote to the Federal Courts this " When a Governing Party miss use of the Power to Appoint a Judge Into the highest Court of The Land, it is seen as a attempt of control against the well of The People, so there for in respect of the Courts and the Protection Of The People, that this Power to appoint a Supreme Court Judge is to be suspended and all Judges should be voted into Office as others."Now so it is to be known Republicans and Democrats Built this Health Care Bill Of Control.Whom am I, I am they last person to betray my faith in Country, and I will not stop until all are voted out of Office for betraying The People Of The United States.So send this message to them that now you know.Henry Massingale


Fortunately, the administration's policy will not increase women's access to contraceptives. Unfortunately, it will decrease access to healthcare for all as Catholic institutions are forced to drop all coverage.  But such is the result of centralized, bureaucratic solutions.

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