Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, gave a speech this weekend on the role of Catholics in public life, responding to recent debates about contraception and religious liberty.
In a news conference after the speech, Dolan addressed the fact that Catholic organizations and experts aren’t united around the Bishops’ policy analysis of the HHS mandate on contraception coverage and the subsequent accommodation that allowed Catholic institutions like hospitals and universities an exemption from covering contraception if it violates their beliefs. Groups like the Catholic Health Association and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities who will be directly affected by the law have accepted the updated policy as addressing their religious liberty concerns while the Bishops remain unsatisfied.
Dolan has some choice words for anyone who asserts the validity of Catholic institutions besides the Bishops to weigh in on matters concerning church:
“We kind of got our Irish up when leaders in government seemed to be assigning an authoritative voice to Catholic groups that are not the bishops.”
He added: “If you want an authoritative voice, go to the bishops. They’re the ones that speak for the truths of the faith.”
This understanding of the role of Catholic laypeople in public life would leave ample room for independent thought if Dolan’s conception of “the truths of the faith” were sufficiently general. But he seems to view “the truths of the faith” as an extremely capacious category.
It includes not only determinations of high-level principles, but also the bishops’ views on very specific and fact-intensive moral conclusions, like the determination that Ella is an abortifacent or the conclusion that (under traditional Catholic views about cooperation with evil) Catholic institutions not only cannot provide health insurance that covers contraception that an employee is free to choose not to use but that those institutions must be empowered to preclude their own insurance carriers from separately contracting with employees to provide contraception coverage for no extra cost (or even, presumably, for some nominal extra cost).
This dynamic is exactly the same as the health care debate, in which the Bishops declared that their analysis, finding the complex structures preventing federal funding of abortion in the law inadequate (unlike the vast majority of experts and fact-checkers, who found that the law did prevent abortion funding), was the only acceptable Catholic position.
Blurring the lines of their teaching authority on moral principles by discrediting the expertise and judgment of Catholics they disagree with does a real disservice to the wider Catholic community.
[T]he federal agencies are to propose a permanent rule that will require insurers to offer insurance to these religious employers without contraceptive coverage.
But insurers will also have to offer free coverage of contraceptives without cost sharing directly to any employees of these religious employers who want it. Objecting employers will thus not be required to provide coverage of nor referrals for coverage.
Insurers will be able to offer contraceptive coverage for free because, according to studies, contraceptives cost substantially less than pregnancies. The free coverage is not, therefore, an “accounting gimmick” — under which employers in fact pay for coverage against their beliefs. Instead, coverage will be paid for by the insurers — out of savings that they realize by offering contraceptive coverage.
At last week’s hearing on religious freedom and the HHS contraception coverage regulations, Catholic Bishop William Lori admitted that he doesn’t believe (as his support of the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act — also known as the Blunt amendment – would suggest) that the right to religious freedom is limitless. In his own words, “rights of conscience should be broadly accommodated unless there is a compelling government interest.”
And though conservatives want to pretend this debate isn’t about contraception, determining whether the economic and health benefits of birth control exist and constitute a government interest to provide access to those services is the heart of the debate.
Based on the recommendation of the independent Institute of Medicine, the administration concluded that the benefits of access to contraceptive services without co-payment were substantial and compelling; it’s the reason HHS chose to include them in the list of mandatory preventive services in the first place.
The U.S. Bishops and others who oppose the mandate disagree. Separate from their concerns about religious liberty, they argue that birth control is a widely available, physically harmful vice that leads to immoral behavior and should not be promoted by the government. Or – as Bishop Lori put it in another misapplied food analogy at last week’s hearing – it’s comparable to beer:
LORI: I do not think that it passes the moral test just to say that if the insurer does it, even if you’re not self-insured. As one commentator said, he said it’s like when you’re in college and you pay the older kid to get your beer for you. It doesn’t really pass the moral test.
This analogy is the product of a host of not-particularly-religious claims about contraception that Catholic conservatives have long cited to justify their theological opposition to these products. Guided by the observation that “pregnancy and fertility are not diseases,” they disagree about characterizations of certain drugs as contraception instead of abortifacents, warn of dangerous side effects of various contraceptives, and promote the inconclusive link between contraception and breast cancer among other objections.
These claims, however, are highly disputed in the medical community and were rejected when the Bishopsmadetheir case during HHS’s public comment period preceding this decision. Given the contested nature of these arguments, it’s unsurprising the Bishops don’t want to emphasize them any more.
However, Bishop Lori’s comments reveal that these questions are central to the debate. The Bishops had the opportunity in the comment period to make their arguments just like everyone else. Just because they disagree with the decision doesn’t mean their religious liberty is being violated.
Anti-Muslim activists often complain that Muslims living in this country don’t effectively assimilate into American culture, that they consider themselves Muslims first and Americans second. Despite the fact that polling has found that Muslim Americans are actually the most loyal religious group in the nation – 93 percent of Muslim Americans say they are loyal to America, and Muslims have the highest confidence in the integrity of the US election process – far-right pundits continue to further the myth that Muslims lack commitment to this country because their faith puts them in conflict with constitutional law.
In fact, the concept of prioritizing faith principles before the law is not unique to Muslims. Prominent Christian figures such as Pat Robertson have publicly remarked that they consider themselves Christians first and Americans second. Perhaps even more telling is the extent to which the current contraception mandate controversy is dominating the political conversation, with some Catholic leaders suggesting they would shut down their hospitals and schools or perform civil disobedience instead of complying with a law they believe conflicts with their faith.
At the recent CPAC conference here in Washington, Nick interviewed prominent anti-Islam activist Robert Spencer and found this exact double standard. Spencer criticizes Muslims for prioritizing Islam over US law, while going on to say he would put his Christian faith first in a situation where Christianity came into conflict with the law:
FPL: A lot of people point to polls that Muslims in various countries suggest that they’re Muslims first and then loyal to that country second – American second, or Spanish second. Do you think that’s a problem and are you worried about that?
Spencer: It’s a big problem, and it’s something that has to be taken into account…when it comes to Islamic law and the constitution, there are many, many ways in which Islamic law contradicts the constitutional freedoms. Then if somebody has a loyalty to Sharia, to Islam first, then that’s very problematic.
FPL: And would you describe yourself as American first, or as a person of faith first?
Spencer: I’m an American and a person of faith. And I believe that my faith, as a Christian, isn’t incompatible with the constitutional freedoms. But Islamic law is manifestly incompatible with constitutional freedoms.
FPL: So would you describe yourself as an American first and a Christian second, or Christian first and American second?
Spencer: Neither one. I think it’s a distinction when it comes to Christianity that thus far, there has not been a problematic issue of allegiance. If it comes down to the new Obama directives with the Catholic Church, for example, forcing it to go back on its own policies and its own doctrine…then obviously those are unjust laws that ought not to be passed.
FPL: So if there was a conflict between your faith and the law, you would choose your faith?
The hypocrisy is apparent. If conservatives are concerned with religious liberty, then that liberty ought to be applied to faith traditions across the board, including Islam. At the same conference, conservative paragon Grover Norquist made this same point (around the 2:42 mark):
FPL: So do you think it harms the conservative argument for religious liberty…when [Republican candidates] have previously expressed some similar concerns to extending this [liberty] to Muslim Americans?
Norquist: You can’t be for religious liberty for some people and not others, or the whole thing falls apart. No one in court is going to rule that way. The court will either go with, yes you can ban synagogues, mosques, missionaries and Catholic hospitals– or you can’t do any of that…I’ve noticed that all faith traditions recognize that an attack on one is an attack on all.
As Norquist points out, Spencer’s duplicitous arguments about Islam fall flat. When it comes to religious freedom, the far right cannot have its cake and eat it too.