Catholic Bishops’ Lonely Contraception Fight
The Obama administration’s ability to find a productive way forward on an unexpected election-year showdown over contraception coverage has been celebrated by a diverse range of organizations as a solution that protects religious liberty and advances women’s health. When the Catholic Health Association and Planned Parenthood Federation of America both hailed the decision, it showed just how precisely the White House threaded a difficult political and policy needle. While conservative Catholics are already lining up to pounce on this important achievement, let’s be clear that those supporting this deal represent some of the most important Catholic institutions in the country.
The Catholic Health Association is not some nice little trade group with a colorful newsletter. It’s the Church’s premier health care ministry and the largest group of nonprofit health providers in the nation, representing more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in all 50 states. Sister Carol Keehan, CHA’s president, is a nationally renowned health care expert and a major political force in the passage of health care reform.
Other Catholic institutions and leaders, including Catholic Charities USA, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, NETWORK, and prominent theologians have all expressed relief that the White House has addressed legitimate concerns raised over a religious exemption that covered churches and other houses of worship but not religiously-affiliated organizations such as Catholic hospitals, universities or charities. Under a revision announced last Friday, these institutions will not have to pay for services that violate their moral beliefs or even refer employees for this coverage.
Instead, if your employer is an objecting university, hospital or other religious institution, the insurer (not the employer) will be required to offer coverage at no cost. As prominent Catholic theologians and other Christian leaders noted in a statement:
This is a sensible, common-ground solution. In recent days, sound bites and divisive rhetoric have too often pitted the faith community against sound science and public health. The previous regulations caused an unnecessary conflict between the administration, the Catholic Church and other religious institutions. We are encouraged that the Obama administration has developed a substantive solution that addresses the concerns of the many constituencies involved. We look forward to bringing the same level of passion displayed in this debate to other pressing moral issues that face our nation.
Problem solved, right? Not so fast. After initially calling the change a “ first step in the right direction,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops posted a follow-up reaction Friday night expressing concern that the proposal “continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions…The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.”
The bishops are moving the goal posts. Even many moderate and liberal Catholics expressed sympathy with the bishops’ argument that Catholic universities, hospitals and social service providers should not be forced to pay for something that Catholic teaching calls immoral. Now that this specific objection has been addressed in a way that works for (or at least begins the process of satisfying) most Catholic institutions that actually provide direct services, the bishops will not be content it seems until all employees in the country are denied coverage for contraception.
Even before USCCB’s objections were posted, Anthony Picarello, the bishops’ associate general counsel, shifted from the bishops’ core argument that religiously affiliated institutions should not be forced to provide birth control coverage to make this stunning leap in an interview with USA Today:
We’re not going to do anything until this is fixed. That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for “good Catholic business people who can’t in good conscience cooperate with this.” “If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate,” Picarello said.
So a high-ranking USSCB official is seriously making the case that a business with no religious context at all should be exempt from providing birth control coverage to its employees? A curious argument especially given that in those 28 states where employers are already required to provide coverage for contraception many Catholic hospitals and universities have for years offered employees this coverage without provoking a massive political outcry.
This hasn’t stopped some bishops from rhetorical flights of grandeur – comparing this disagreement between the bishops and President Obama to what happens under North Korea’s dictatorial regime. One Catholic pastor has reportedly called this “our Rosa Parks moment.”
It’s not surprising bishops can’t take yes for an answer from this administration. Since Obama was elected the bishops have relished a confrontational posture. At some point they have to ask themselves whether they want to fight these lonely battles from the sidelines or be engaged in a more prudent way.
I’m afraid Catholic bishops run the risk of alienating even moderate Catholics who respect our church leaders when they appear to relish a fight instead of finding common ground. A few examples:
- Just days after the 2008 election, bishops gathered for a national meeting and spoke in apocalyptic terms about the supposed threat posed by Freedom of Choice Act. Remember that bishops sponsored a national postcard campaign to lobby Congress and the White House against this bill that was never even introduced. After weeks of frenzied lobbying and action alerts, even Catholic News Service felt the need to debunk unsubstantiated rumors of Catholic hospitals being forced to perform abortions as unsubstantiated rumors.
- Catholic bishops blasted the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to give the 2009 commencement address, a speech that even drew praise from a Vatican newspaper for its thoughtful tenor on difficult issues such as abortion.
- The bishops’ long advocacy for universal health care stalled when they opposed the Obama administration’s historic health care reform legislation over a misguided belief that it would provide taxpayer funding of abortion, a flawed policy analysis according to the Catholic Health Association, independent experts and the courts.
In the coming weeks it will be critical for those Catholic institutions that have supported this sensible solution to defend it with as much energy as bishops and Republican leaders will oppose it.