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.
The Senate is slated to vote today on the controversial Blunt amendment, which several Republican senators either oppose or are undecided on and which Mitt Romney weighed in on yesterday. The Blunt amendment, which Dan deftly took down earlier this month, would allow employers to deny employees any medical treatment or service they object to for any moral reason.
The concept of putting an employer between an individual and his or her doctor is about much more than contraception– this is about giving employers veto power over the health and well-being of their employees.
Prominent faith groups, including the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, the United Methodist Church and the Union for Reform Judaism among others, have all spoken out to oppose the measure, saying “ the Blunt amendment would eviscerate critical protections in the Affordable Care Act and completely undermine a fundamental principle of the health care law—that everyone in this country deserves a basic standard of health insurance coverage.”
Unfortunately, other religious organizations are weighing in with ad campaigns and public statements endorsing the proposed amendment under the guise of religious liberty. Catholic Advocate PAC, a conservative Catholic outfit that has financially supported Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) (who has sponsored his own similar amendment), has a new video ad out.
The ad focuses solely on the recent accommodation to the HHS ruling on contraception coverage, without mentioning the litany of other medical procedures the Blunt amendment could effect. It also conveniently neglects to clarify that the HHS exemption is for religiously based employers (churches, dioceses, and with the accommodation, religious hospitals, social service providers, and universities) and the Blunt amendment would allow any employer (from an insurance agent to a Taco Bell franchise owner to an investment banker) to deny medical coverage to their employees for almost any reason.
The Blunt amendment is an extreme attempt to dismantle critical protections under the Affordable Care Act. Well-meaning religious groups convinced to support it as a remedy to their misguided concerns about the religious accommodation are missing the forest for the trees.
It’s heartening to see faith groups and a host of other organizations taking a stand and reminding lawmakers that religious liberty and health care shouldn’t be pitted against one another.