A plea for compromise

A reader called to tell me that something was bothering her about the news coverage she has seen on Catholic reaction to the Obama administration’s mandate on contraceptive coverage in health care plans.

The mandate has only a narrow exemption for employers who are opposed to contraception. The U.S. Catholics bishops are vehemently opposed to that provision and many other Catholic leaders have joined them in opposing it.

The U.S. bishops have been uniquely united on this issue.

The reporting, the reader on the phone said, “gives the impression that a vast number of Catholics are in support of the bishops.”

“I have talked to enough laypeople, Catholic ethicists and theologians, and women religious to believe that this simply is not the case. A substantial number of Catholics support the health care mandate with the contraception provision and are critical of the bishops’ battle over religious liberty.”

The reader has some social science to back her claims.

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Survey data reported Feb. 7 by the Public Religion Research Institute found that a majority of Catholics (58 percent) support the contraception mandate generally, and Catholics are more likely than Americans in general (52 to 49 percent) to say that religiously affiliated employers should have to provide contraception coverage.

The reader also has medical science to back her claims.

The mandate for women’s health services — contraception is just one part of it — was recommended by the Institute of Medicine. Giving women, especially poor women, greater access to health services makes women and their families healthier. If the right to conscience is worth battling for, so too is health care for women.

Whatever accommodation is eventually worked out regarding the mandate, making sure that women — including Catholic women — have access to a principal tool that has allowed them to space out pregnancies, remain in the work force and avoid the predicaments that too often raise the more serious moral issue of abortion should be a part of it.

This newspaper has taken a stand favoring support for expanding the religious exemption in this mandate. We’re taking that stand because too much is at stake, not least of which is the Affordable Care Act itself. We have been told that a wider exemption will be necessary to defend against bills concerning life issues such as euthanasia, abortion and genome research pending in state legislatures.

I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t tell you that we struggled with this issue, largely because so much of the bishops’ argument for support is built on the church’s teaching on birth control, a teaching that has been rejected and ignored for almost two generations now.

In our coverage of this topic last issue, we quoted from a statement from Patrick Whelan, a doctor, president of Catholic Democrats and NCR board member. It is good to remember his words: “The need for the hierarchy, theologians and the laity to come together and discuss these important issues has never been more pressing. This is particularly true at a time when our nation, and our church, needs informed public debate on a range of moral issues, especially the economy, growing poverty, and the continuing ‘scandal of glaring inequalities’ (see Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 2009).”

*******

As the Feb. 17 issue went to press, signals were coming from the White House that the administration may be seeking a solution to this problem. That is welcome news. Any solution will mean compromise.

Despite the polarized rhetoric that dominates politics these days, compromise is not a dirty word or a sign of moral failing. Compromise is how people relate to one another, how political factions work effectively, how people of goodwill move forward for the common good. Compromise also takes a certain amount of humility on all sides.

Many of the letters bishops have issued lack this necessary humility. The bishops have said that this mandate comes from “the heavy hand of government” and is a “a bigoted and blatant attack on the First Amendment rights of every Catholic believer” and a sign of the “ ‘radical secularism’ of government officials, legislators and judges.” One bishop said that President Barack Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius are “willingly and willfully precipitating a constitutional crisis.” One bishop called Sebelius “a bitter, fallen-away Catholic.”

“The devil wants to silence the church’s voice,” one bishop wrote. Another asked Catholics to pray that the administration would reverse course and then added: “Surely, if the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church, God can manage a cabinet department.”

That kind of rhetoric will not be helpful in forging a compromise.

The leaders of the U.S. bishops’ conference has done something that has not been done in a long time: They have made the bishops speak with one voice. Now I hope they can muster the same energy necessary to broker a compromise.

[Dennis Coday is NCR editor. His email address is dcoday@nconline.org]

[This is the Editor’s Note that appears in the Feb. 17-March 1 issue of National Catholic Reporter.]

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