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Bishop Blaire, the HHS Mandate, and the Common Good

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 24, 2012

Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California would have preferred a wider consultation on the USCCB’s opposition to the HHS Mandate. He is distressed by the number of individuals and organizations filing lawsuits in the fight against the mandate, and he would have liked to have seen two things from the USCCB: (1) Greater clarity concerning the primary episcopal focus in opposing the mandate; and (2) Greater control by the bishops of the overall strategic Catholic opposition to the mandate.

On the question of clarity, Bishop Blaire notes that for some bishops the key issue is the HHS mandate’s interference with the Church’s institutional right to carry on its own mission in accordance with its own principles. But for others the key issue is the violation of the religious freedom and/or conscience rights of individuals. In reality, of course, both of these are important issues, but Bishop Blaire is considering things from a strategic perspective. In other words, which argument is more likely to succeed?

The question is not trivial. The two arguments go something like this: (1) The Church is an independent institution with her own purposes and scope of legitimate action, which is recognized in American law by the principle of the separation of Church and State. Therefore, laws which require the Church, in the course of her institutional life, to violate her own principles, are unjust. Or (2) Contraception, sterilization and abortion are significant moral acts in which many people cannot in conscience participate. Laws which force people to act against their personal religious beliefs and consciences are unjust.

Bishop Blaire himself seems to be convinced that the first argument has a greater chance of success in the United States, where there is still some recognition of the institutional independence of churches but little sympathy for opposition to sexual liberties such as contraception: “I am concerned that in addressing the H.H.S. mandate that it be clear that what we are dealing with is a matter of religious liberty and the intrusion of government into the church and that it not be perceived as a woman’s issue or a contraceptive issue.” At the level of strategy, this is not an unfair distinction. Indeed, nearly everyone recognized the strategic wisdom of the USCCB when it initially framed the issue in terms of the legitimate freedom of ecclesiastical institutions rather than in terms of the immorality of the procedures in question.

But what Bishop Blaire seems not to recognize is that framing the issue in this way gives the “institutional” Church a better chance of success only at the expense of permitting the moral coercion of individual Catholics who may not happen to work for the institutional Church—that is, the overwhelming majority of her members (along with anyone else with similar moral convictions). Though important, it is not enough that the institutional Church should be exempt from immoral insurance requirements. Nobody should be forced to financially support immoral practices. As the implications have unfolded, the laity and the USCCB alike have realized this battle must be fought on more than just the institutional front.

Bishop Blaire is afraid that wider support will be lost if the fight seems to be “political”. For Bishop Blaire, it is apparently not political if the Church is merely asserting her institutional independence, emphasizing her own institutional religious liberty under the principle of separation of Church and state. But apparently it becomes political for Bishop Blaire if “different groups” attempt “to co-opt this and make it into a political issue”, that is, “a woman’s issue or a contraceptive issue,” using it as a sort of Republican excuse to mount “an anti-Obama campaign”. He is certainly correct that there is more national sympathy for religious rights than there is for moral opposition to contraception. But he is completely wrong to think that any of these issues, as they are brought to a head by the HHS Mandate, can escape being political.

Moreover, a broader emphasis on the religious liberty or conscience rights of all citizens does not at all transform the fight into a campaign to eliminate the freedom of people to purchase their own contraceptives. That is not what the lawsuits are about. It is disingenuous to suggest that these lawsuits turn the battle into “a woman’s issue or a contraceptive issue.”

But it is a political issue, and even Bishop Blaire’s own assessment is irretrievably political. He believes that the Obama Administration is anxious to resolve its problem with the Church, so that negotiations will bear far more fruit than lawsuits. This is precisely a political judgment (and a rather typically naïve political judgment of the kind that led Timothy Cardinal Dolan to be surprised that President Obama does not keep his moral promises). In any case, for the bishops to fight the government for their own institutional independence is just as much a political issue as for the laity to fight the government for their personal religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Whenever the direction of government, law and regulation must be changed, the issue is by definition political.

This brings us, of course, to Bishop Blaire’s second concern, that the USCCB should be exercising greater control over the Catholic response to the HHS Mandate to preserve the kind of clear institutional focus he and some other bishops would prefer. But even if we suppose that it would be moral for the bishops to orchestrate that response in such a way as to ignore everyone who doesn’t have a “Church job” (or who is not a “Church employer”), and even if we suppose that the USCCB could actually succeed in doing this, we must ask an even more fundamental question: Should the bishops be in charge of this fight?

It is not the proper role of bishops to orchestrate political battles. Insofar as institutional Church issues are at stake, they must necessarily provide significant leadership. But the bishops are not the whole Church, and it belongs to the laity to orchestrate the full battle between religious, moral citizens and an irreligious and immoral State. Because institutions which bishops must manage are at stake does not imply that nothing else is at stake, or that there is no political conflict in which the laity are called to engage, or indeed that the laity are not to lead the way in stopping and redressing attacks on the institutional Church.

Worse still, Bishop Blaire has run the grave risk of dismissing personal opposition based on moral principles as somehow merely or negatively “political”. Democrats may dismiss personal opposition to contraception as a Republican “excuse” to “get Obama”. Indeed, we hear this nonsense all the time at CatholicCulture.org. But this is simply an excuse to demonize those with Christian moral principles. Politicians must take responsibility for their policy agendas, and stand or fall accordingly. What Bishop Blaire has done here is to confuse “political” with “partisan”. These words are not synonyms, and they do not suddenly become synonyms when moral principles unrecognized by the dominant culture are brought to the fore.

For all these reasons, it is evidence of the worst sort of clericalism for Bishop Blaire to even hint that the USCCB should or even could have orchestrated the entire strategy in some sort of sanitized, advantageous institutional context. The bishops are not to view themselves as “players” who negotiate deals with the politically powerful to ensure the maintenance of their own personal comfort zones. Where, in Bishop Blaire’s remarks, do we see a proper episcopal concern for the common good?

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: John3822 - May. 26, 2012 12:12 PM ET USA

    The problem is that if this is perceived merely as an anti-Obama or "Obamacare" issue, it alienates a large number of people who would support it as a religious freedom issue. It is not only a Catholic issue, all faiths should be fearful of losing religious liberty. And even if one is for abortion and contraception, they ought to oppose this. I therefore tend to agree in principal with Bishop Blaire - whether or not the Web or newspaper is the place to hash this out is another matter.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 25, 2012 10:37 PM ET USA

    A non-denominational friend and professional peer once came up with the motto: "Do the right thing for the right reason." This admonition is as invaluable as it is rare in today's disoriented world. The Church has suffered devastating setbacks in recent decades for the failure of too many of her leaders to appreciate the wisdom of this axiom. Pope St. Gregory VII did not fail to put this into practice. Pope St. Gregory VII, pray for us.

  • Posted by: kmbold - May. 25, 2012 6:18 PM ET USA

    Bishop Blaire of Stockton, whence emerged Cardinal Roger Mahony, seems to imply that only Democrats could oppose the Obama/Sibelius mandate.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 24, 2012 7:38 PM ET USA

    "Where, in Bishop Blaire’s remarks, do we see a proper episcopal concern for the common good?" In mutual rebuke and holiness, I would personally hope...; but I fear that is not what Bishop Blaire has in mind. With the bishops' tendency towards passivity and humanism I would suspect he is more focused on their "making remarks" and social gestures. But men who can't at least confront the government certainly wouldn't have the courage to rebuke one another laterally.

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