Some see bishops in danger of overplaying their hand
In the three weeks between President Barack Obama’s Jan. 20 announcement that there would be no expansion of the conscience exemptions regarding Department of Health and Human Services mandates for contraceptives and his Feb. 10 announcement of an “accommodation” that effectively does expand those exemptions, the U.S. bishops enjoyed a rare moment of public support from many progressive Catholics.
Groups like the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK and the Catholic Health Association, as well as prominent liberal Catholics like E.J. Dionne and Chris Matthews, joined the bishops in calling for broader exemptions for Catholic colleges, charities and hospitals.
When the president announced his accommodation, it was clearly a win for the bishops. The president had set a one-year timetable to address religious concerns, but the firestorm he had ignited required him to address the issue more quickly than planned.
Instead of taking a victory lap, though, the bishops declared themselves unsatisfied with the accommodation and shifted the goalposts of the debate.
To be sure, there remain problems with Obama’s accommodation. It did not address religious institutions that self-insure. And it keeps in place a troublesome precedent, drawing a distinction between houses of worship and the universities, charities and hospitals that are, for Catholics at least, integral to what is meant by “church.”
As Dionne wrote, “For liberals who sided with the church in this controversy, the most vexing problem with the original exemption on contraception is that it defined ‘religious’ so narrowly that the reality that these organizations go out of their way to serve non-Catholics was held against them. Their Gospel-inspired work was defined as non-religious. This violated the very essence of Christian charity and the church’s social justice imperatives.”
The bishops could have worked with the president to address these concerns. Instead, however, the bishops’ conference highlighted a new argument into the debate, insisting that private, secular employers should also have the right to be exempt from the mandate. With that, the bishops are losing the support they earlier gained.
“People will go to the mat to protect the Catholic church and its institutions, but they will not go to the mat to protect Taco Bell and other businessmen if they want to deny contraceptives to their women employees,” said Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington. The “Taco Bell” reference comes from the bishops’ general counsel, Anthony Picarello, who said that private employers — even owners of places like Taco Bell — should be allowed a religious exemption from the Health and Human Services mandate. [More]