After an initial muted reaction to President Obama’s proposed “accommodation,” the leaders of the US bishops’ conference have released a second, stronger statement, declaring that the mandate for contraceptive coverage in health-care programs remains “unacceptable and must be corrected.”
On Friday evening, February 10—several hours after President Obama unveiled his “compromise” proposal—the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released an official statement signed by five leading prelates. The bishops said that the revised plan “continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions.”
That clear statement of opposition contrasted with an earlier response from the USCCB, in which Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York had described the revised plan as “a first step in the right direction.” While that initial reaction was ambiguous, the bishops’ 2nd statement left no doubt that the USCCB would continue to oppose the Obama mandate.
Unfortunately, before the bishops released their second statement, leaders of two of the largest Catholic employers in the country—the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities USA–had released their own statements indicating that they were satisfied with the Obama administration’s “compromise” proposal. So while the political battle continues, the Catholic forces are already split.
In a perceptive analysis of the political debate, reporter Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times said that in its decision to amend the original HHS mandate, the Obama administration was “never really driven by a desire to mollify Roman Catholic bishops, who were strongly opposed to the plan.” She explained:
Rather, the fight was for Sister Carol Keehan–head of an influential Catholic hospital group, who had supported President Obama’s health care law–and Catholic allies of the White House seen as the religious left. Sister Keehan had told the White House that the new rule, part of the health care law, went too far.
Now that Sister Keehan has endorsed the Obama “compromise” (along with Father Larry Snyder of Catholic Charities USA), the Obama administration can claim that many Catholics, including some who had originally opposed the plan, now see the wisdom of his ways. President Obama does not intend to persuade the American bishops to support his proposal; he intends to siphon off support for the bishops among American Catholic voters, driving a political wedge further into the country’s Catholic community.
Isn’t this always the technique that subtle politicians use to attack the power of the Catholic Church? King Henry VIII set himself up as supreme ruler of the Church in England, superior to the bishops; the Chinese Communist regime urges the faithful to take their guidance from the Catholic Patriotic Association rather than the stubborn bishops of the “underground” Church; the Chavez regime in Venezuela boasts that the “people’s Church” supports the president even while the bishops warn against the dangerous expansion of his powers. Only rarely do brutal tyrants attempt a frontal assault; much more frequently, Machiavellian leaders attempt to draw invidious comparisons between the “unreasonable” bishops who cling to traditional Catholic teaching and the more accommodating Catholics—never in short supply—who will accept the authority of the state.
In their later statement, USCCB leaders reveal that they were not consulted in advance about President Obama’s proposed “accommodation.” The bishops who have been most heavily involved in this battle apparently now recognize that they are unlikely to reach an agreement with the White House. In their official statement, they said:
We will therefore continue—with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency—our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government. [emphasis added]
Still, despite its clear rejection of the proffered compromise, the bishops’ second statement left the door open to the possibility that some future compromise could secure their acquiescence. Their statement said that the proposal required further study and “careful moral analysis,” and said that the compromise plans presented at the White House on February 10 “appear subject to some measure of change.” These measured words might give some readers the impression that the bishops are hoping to amend the Obama proposal, rather than to defeat it.
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