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by Michael Sean Winters

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Matt Bowman has a post up at in which he chastises me for backing away from my earlier assertion that only a "fool" would accept a compromise on the HHS mandates that was promised to be reach after the election. Of course, when I made that remark originally, it was before the President announced his accommodation, so the political calculus is a bit different. The President has been spanked on the issue and, so long as certain conservative politicians and bishops do not over-reach, I think we can find a way through this to a solution that is satisfactory. But, I wish to re-assure Mr. Bowman that I have not wavered in my conviction that we should expect this to be resolved before, not after, the election.

N.B. I should add that I may be somewhat responsible for the mix-up. In posting yesterday, I mangled one sentence, and went back and changed it, but if anyone has me on an RSS feed, they got the original in which I suggested that the current proposal on the table requires the White House to fix this in the summer of 2012. In fact, the administration gave itself until 2013 to work this out.

But, Bowman goes further, suggesting that my opposition to the Rubio-Blunt bill is wrong-headed because earlier leftie titans like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Ted Kennedy supported similar exemptions in previous debates about other issues. I plead guilty and here is where I fear Mr. Bowman and his fellow political conservatives have trouble understanding my objection to the Rubio-Blunt amendment.

Politically, my criticism of that amendment and of the USCCB's support for it, comes from the fact that the amendment was a poison bill designed to gut the Affordable Care Act which I have consistently supported. More importantly, I object to it on theological grounds and here my opposition would more accurately be seen as coming from the right: I perceive that the dominant threat to a Catholic understanding of politics in our day is the libertarian temptations of both left and right, which sanction a view of human autonomy that I cannot reconcile with Catholic anthropology.

My friends at CatholicVote may be satisfied with the Catholic neo-con project, sustained over the years by George Weigel and his ilk, of reducing Catholicism to a prop for Americanism, or at least their version of Americanism, but I am not so satisfied. Religion is an add-on to them, a source of moral guidance, and nothing more. The project of Catholic progressives and Catholic neo-cons both tend to argue about the rules of engagement with modernity, but they both tend to accept a dualistic approach to the relationship between faith and politics, and more deeply between grace and nature.

I reject that dualism and stand with the Communio school of theology in doing so. This may confound Mr. Bowman. It certainly confounds some of my liberal political friends. Sometimes, I confess, it confounds me.

Let me give another example. Upon my return from holiday, I read Bishop Lori's testimony before Congress earlier this week. It was appalling and it was appalling in a very specific way. He did not explain that our Catholic ministries are, for us, an integral part of our faith. He gave a critique of contemporary liberalism, much of which I agreed with, but which had no theological content: Bishop Lori should consider blogging, but when he testifies as a representative of the nation's bishops, he might want to bring theology into the discussion. Most especially, Bishop Lori failed to mention God.

We listen to our bishops because they are successors of the apostles and their authority must be apostolic in its exercise. (cf. Kierkegaard's essay "Without Authority" in which he makes the point that we do not praise, nor fault, Paul as a tentmaker.) If a bishop of the Catholic Church goes into the most public forum imaginable, a congressional hearing, and fails to mention God, then we do not need HHS to promote secularization in our culture. Bishop Lori did it for them. I fear, and fear greatly, that the bishops have been blinded by politics.

A good friend, and a smart friend, who has been very involved in these issues and who supports the idea that individual employers should be exempt as well as religiously affiliated institutions, pointed me in the direction of Dignitatis Humanae #2. There we read:

"This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits."

Vatican documents are written with great care and there is almost always a clause that conditions a claim. Here, it is the last three words, "within due limits." Obviously, many conservatives who oppose the entire idea of a government mandate in health care would argue that the Affordable Care Act goes beyond "due limits" but I think the ACA's mandates are no different from a tax and, clearly, taxes fall within the "due limits" condition set forth by Dignitatis Humanae #2. Of course, don't look for the White House to use the argument that a mandate is really a tax just because it is true.

There are other instances of more pronounced duplicity as well. Last night, Sen. Gillebrand from New York repeated the "fact" that 98% of Catholic women have used birth control, even though the washington Post's fact checkers have demolished that fact.

I remain unsatisfied with the President's accommodation because it perpetuates a distinction in law between houses of worship and Catholic institutions like hospitals, charities and schools. But, I do not object to the President's accommodation because it fails to provide an exemption to individual employers like Taco Bell. I do not want to feed the beast in modern American culture that perceives conscience as solely an individual thing, untethered from tradition or from the Magisterium. Conscience so conceived too easily becomes not the voice of God speaking to the individual, but the individual's own voice, speaking to itself.

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