The USCCB’s response to the latest iteration of the
On the other hand, conservatives determined to fight the administration and defeat any compromise, should be even more disappointed with the statement. Secular politics is no longer an arena of life where nuances matter, but they matter in ecclesiastical politics a great deal. And, in this case, there was more than a nuanced change from what we were hearing one year ago when the administration announced its first “accommodation.” Last February , the bishops were calling for legislative action, which seems improbable now as the GOP will not touch this issue with a ten foot pole. Last year, they insisted the recession of the mandate was the only solution. The President’s offer was “unacceptable” and, in testimony before Congress that same month, then-Bishop William Lori called the mandate “absurd.” In short, one year ago, the bishops were willing to issue a call to the barricades. Nothing like that is found in the statement issued yesterday.
Instead, the headline this year says the administration’s proposal “falls short” and states that the “Bishops look forward to addressing issues with the administration.” Instead of appealing for a legislative solution, the bishops state they will engage the comment period on the rule to voice their remaining concerns. They acknowledge that the administration took a good step by eliminating the four-part definition of a religious institution. The entire tone of the document is far, far different from what we heard last year, and not only in February, but then during the Fortnight for Freedom. No one is headed to the barricades now, they are headed to the conference table to negotiate.
Before heading to the negotiating table at the White House, the bishops need to do something first. If, as I believe, the statement issued yesterday reflects a changed approach from combativeness to trying to find a solution, it is really, really, important that the bishops articulate, to themselves, to their staff and to the Catholic faithful, what is the key question before us. It is not only a legal question. It is not only a question for moral theologians. It is a practical question too, and a simple one: What do we need to do to keep our ministries going? If there are some culture warriors who say that any hint of association with the mandate will rob the Church of a part of her soul, the bishops need to understand that closing our ministries will rob more than a part of her soul. A Church that does not care for the poor, minister to the sick and dying, and educate the ignorant, is not the Church of Jesus Christ.
There is also a question for the Obama administration before they head to the negotiating table. I understand that they are committed to making sure there is nearly universal access to free contraceptive care for women. I understand too, that anyone who thinks that there is a solution that will not guarantee such universal access is deluding themselves: The election in November decided that issue. But, the Obama administration, and especially the people at HHS, need to ask themselves this question: If Catholic hospitals were to close, would for-profit health care step into the breach and start caring for immigrants, the poor, and the marginalized? If Catholic Charities were to shut down, who would pick up the slack for all they do to assist the poor in every city and hamlet in America? The administration, however frustrated they might be, need to keep coming back to the table. They need not understand how Catholic moral theology works, and I am sure our concerns about cooperation with evil strike them as strange at best, but they must respect that for Catholics, such issues matter and it is worthwhile trying to appease the tensions.
I mention moral theology specifically for a reason. It is also time that the U.S. bishops assume their role as leaders of the Church in the United States. They need to stop letting the lawyers and the moral theologians dictate the terms of the debate, not least because the lawyers they apparently listen to (that would be you, Becket Fund) and the moral theologians that have their ear (that would be you, National Catholic Bioethics Center), are not pastors and they come at these issues from a specific perspective, a perspective that is not exhaustive, and with an agenda that is not a pastor’s agenda. Lawyers, by training, are looking to fight over every jot and tittle and their goal is to win. Some moral theologians read our tradition differently from the way Dr. Haas reads it, and his aim seems to be to narrow the tradition as much as possible.
The Becket Fund and the
It is time for the U.S. bishops to consult, first and foremost, with the stakeholders in their dioceses. How do Catholic charities deal with state-level mandates already in effect? How do different stakeholders interact with the government already and do those differences threaten our religious liberty? For example, when a local Catholic charity is sued, and this happens with some frequency because working with the poor does not always yield a happy outcome, I am guessing that the lawyer’s for the diocese make it very, very clear that diocesan assets are not at risk because the diocese and Catholic Charities are distinct, separate corporations. Or, do they jump in and claim ownership and put the diocese at financial risk? Hmmmm. I bet I know the answer to that question. So, what is all this sound-bite stuff in the statement issued yesterday about “first class” and “second class” religious organizations. The administration is treating “exempt” organizations differently from “accommodated” organizations because the latter group has a lot more women, and more women who might not share the Church’s views on contraception and no solution, repeat no solution, is simply going to deny access to this coverage the administration wants.
I remain suspicious about the claim that the current iteration entails material cooperation with evil. I do not see that the Catholic institution that is “accommodated” has to do anything. But, one part of the proposal from
The most disappointing aspect of the bishops’ statement was their continued insistence on an exemption for private, for-profit employers. As I wrote Monday, this is a proper concern for the Becket Fund, it is not a proper concern for the bishops. And, furthermore, I think we need to be very careful in this hyper-individualistic society of ours, in advocating an individual’s right to claim an exemption from a law based on their religious beliefs. As I discovered in researching my biography of Jerry Falwell, there were many, many white Southern Protestants who claimed the Bible itself justified segregation. They had a deeply held religious belief, rooted in their understanding of Scripture, that informed their conscience in such a way that they believed segregation was God’s will. Should they have been able then – or now – to claim an exemption from the nation’s civil rights laws? The bishops are playing with fire on this issue and, if I were them, I would be wary, very wary, of accepting the advice of anyone who does not discern that danger.
It seems to me that the leadership of the conference has a problem on their hand of which their response to the