The USCCB Administrative Committee begins a two-day meeting this morning. A lot has happened since the USCCB plenary in November, so the bishops have a full plate but the issue that has captured the attention of the entire nation, the HHS mandates, will undoubtedly garner the lion’s share of discussion.
It is clear that the President’s “accommodation,” announced on February 10, was an effort to assuage the concerns about conscience raised by the bishops and other Catholics, including many of the President’s supporters. And, it is also clear that in one regard, the accommodation works: Catholic institutions will not have to do anything regarding contraception coverage. They do not have to provide it nor refer employees to a different provider where they can get it. Yes, the vehicle the President proposed for delivering universal coverage for women is the institution’s health insurance company, and there is a federal mandate to provide an insurance plan, but there is also a Gospel mandate to provide insurance for workers at our Catholic institutions. In any event, I think the accommodation showed increased sensitivity by the White House to our concerns.
It is also clear that the accommodation is insufficient, most obviously because it fails to deal with self-insured Catholic institutions but most worrisomely because it leaves in tact the classification of exempt organizations that draws a distinction between houses of worship and religious ministries. To be clear, federal law already treats certain religious entities differently. For example, it is my understanding that most parishes do not have to file 990s, but most Catholic hospitals and colleges do. But, setting a precedent in federal regulations regarding an employer mandate that draws an arbitrary distinction between a house of worship and a religious ministry is a very bad thing. I hope the fact that the issue of the self-insured entities will require the administration to revisit the mechanism by which they guarantee universal access to contraception will encourage the administration to re-think the entire accommodation and come up with something better.
The Obama administration, however, is not the only organization that needs to re-examine its position. The USCCB has made a hash of things since the President announced his accommodation. As M. Cathleen Kaveny pointed out during her marvelous appearance on the “Daily Show,” jeremiads are not part of the Catholic tradition when it comes to Church-State relations. The Holy See sends nuncios not denunciations to governments. From some quarters, the denunciations of President Obama have bordered on the hysterical, giving rise to the suspicion that Obama could appear on Mt. Tabor with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and that still would not be enough to satisfy some of the Obama-haters on the episcopal bench.
The first thing the USCCB must do is abandon its concern for the conscience rights of secular employers, the infamous Taco Bell argument. I understand that the Fortenberry bill and the Blunt amendment were the two legislative vehicles on the Hill for addressing Catholic concerns, and that those bills both included an individual exemption for non-religious employers and corporations. But, by emphasizing that part of the argument, the bishops squandered a great deal of moral credibility and seemed to misunderstand why so many prominent Catholic liberals, who normally support the President, were willing to take him on over the original mandate and its narrow exemption. We are willing to go to the mat for Notre Dame but are not willing to go to the mat for Taco Bell. Apart from the tribal sensibility of Catholics towards our own institutions, I have pointed out repeatedly that in this hyper-individualistic culture, it is always a mistake to feed the idea that conscience, and religion generally, is an individualistic thing, me and Jesus. If every man can be a law unto himself, where is the role for the bishops themselves as teachers? What is the role of the Magisterium in such an individualistic understanding of conscience? Wither the common good?
Secondly, I think the bishops do have to commit to negotiations, not denunciations, with the White House. I understand that there is precious little trust on either side. Certainly, the Obama administration brought much of the current mess on themselves after the President promised Cardinal Dolan in November that he would be pleased with how this debate would turn out, and then did a 180 on him. Conversely, after the wolf-crying postcard campaign on FOCA, the controversy over Obama’s speaking at Notre Dame, and the USCCB’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act, I think Obama’s lack of trust is not without warrant also. But, the bishops are religious leaders, not politicians. They have an obligation to not only presume the good faith of others, but an obligation as pastors and evangelizers to seek out what good faith there is and build upon it. St. Paul got to the Aeropagus and he did not denounce the Greek gods: He sought out the one, rather humble, monument to the Unknown God and used that as his starting point for evangelization. As Bishop Blase Cupich discussed in his recent essay at America, the President’s own words are a good starting point for that conversation.
Third, the bishops have recognize that the landscape has changed enormously in the past few months. They had the wind at their back in the weeks between the President’s January 20 announcement and his February 10 announcement. The issue was framed as one about religious liberty, with no small help from E.J. Dionne, Chris Matthews and other liberals. Now, thanks to both the House Republicans who were so tone-deaf they did not think to have women on their panel discussing the issue, and thanks even more to Rush Limbaugh’s nastiness, the issue is now framed primarily as one about contraception and women’s rights and I frankly do not see how it gets re-framed. The worst thing the USCCB administrative committee could decide would be to spend gobs of money trying to reframe the issue: There is not enough money in the world to achieve that and they would be wasting those precious resources.
Which leads to my fourth point: The USCCB should consider spending a bit of money and a whole lot of moral indignation on the issue of immigration reform. If, as I contend is now irreversible, the issue of the HHS mandates is framed as being about contraception not religious liberty, and the USCCB is seen to go to the mat over that issue, with bulletin inserts and letters from the pulpit and postcard campaigns, and they bishops are not willing to do the same on behalf of our immigrant brothers and sisters, Latinos will notice. (So will the rest of us!) The USCCB should consider how they can educate and register more Latino Catholic voters in Texas, New Mexico and California but also in North Carolina and Virginia. They should find ways to fund efforts to catechize our Latino immigrants better than the bishops’ predecessors did with the last two generations of Anglo Catholics. (If you doubt how bad the catechesis was, think of these two words: Sebelius and Santorum.) I would spend money on college scholarships for bright Latinos, and scholarships for Latino graduates to go to Catholic law schools. It is from law schools that the future legislators and judges and mayors and governors will be drawn. Catechesis, voter education, and law school all take time, but the bishops should ask themselves this question: Insofar as it is a demographic certainty that Texas will be Democratic blue within a dozen years, do the bishops think the Church’s concerns, on HHS mandates and immigration and social justice and other concerns, would get a better hearing if there emerged a pro-life, pro-immigrant, pro-social justice wing of the Democratic Party in Texas? The question answers itself.
When I make my walk this morning, I am going to say a special prayer for Cardinal Dolan, who will preside at the meetings that start today. He has emerged as America’s most prominent churchman in a way no one has since Cardinal James Gibbons ruled in Baltimore. That is some legacy, and it is a legacy Dolan knows well because his mentor, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, wrote Gibbons’ biography. Gibbons – and Ellis! – always took the long view whether the issues were strictly ecclesiastical or whether they touched on politics. The times were different. There was no Youtube, no internet. And, back then, the leaders of the Church could have an internal conversation in a way that is impossible today what with we prying journalists! But, the balanced leadership of Gibbons over a very fractious body of bishops, dealing with issues that were certainly as challenging as HHS mandates, stands out because of his ability to take the long view on issues, to prefer discussion to contention, to assume the good faith of all and try to keep everyone in the Church moving in the same direction with a great deal of encouragement, firmness in the faith, and a very, very rare exercise of a heavy hand. My prayer for Dolan and his brother bishops will be Gibbons’ episcopal motto: Emitte Spiritum Tuum. The spirit of wisdom, not political calculation, the spirit of understanding, not pre-conceived bias, the spirit of wonder and awe that reminds us God will not abandon His people, not even for a minute (cf. Is 54: 7-8), the spirit of right judgement and courage and knowledge and reverence. Heavy is the head that wears the miter, but with such great gifts of the Spirit available to all who ask, and with Gibbons as an example of leadership, I am betting Cardinal Dolan can see his way through the current, critical moment in the Church’s history and find a solution to the problem of the HHS mandates, look for ways so that our Latino Catholics do not abandon the faith either for other religions or to the ambient, materialistic culture, and help build, slowly and surely, a culture of life that will better reflect our highest ideals as both Catholics and as Americans than the culture we have today. That, at least, is my prayer.