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On the mandate, a dangerous crack in the bishops' united front

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 25, 2012

The counter-attack has begun. You knew it was coming, didn’t you?

For weeks now the American bishops have been marching in lockstep unity, completely unanimous in their opposition to the HHS contraceptive mandate. The Catholic hierarchy has been headed into a showdown with President Obama, and not a single bishop had shown any inclination to back away from the fight. But you knew it couldn’t last. And it didn’t.

This week Bishop Stephen Blaire became the first prelate to break stride, voicing his misgivings about the confrontation. Oh, Bishop Blaire wasn’t suggesting that the Catholic hierarchy should accede to the HHS mandate. After all he had already condemned the mandate as unjust, as had the leaders of every other Catholic diocese in the United States. But Bishop Blaire raised a few questions about the strategy being followed by the leaders of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), about the lack of consultation, about the possible public perceptions. That was enough. Immediately liberal Catholics seized the opportunity to launch their own campaign, suggesting that only a minority of “conservative” bishops favor the all-out battle against the HHS mandate.

Now Bishop Blair says that his words were misinterpreted. “I stand solidly with my brother bishops in our common resolve to overturn the unacceptable intrusion of government into the life of the Church by the HHS mandate,” he insists in a follow-up statement. But no one ever doubted his opposition to the mandate. Every reasonable Catholic—excluding the extreme ideologues like Kathleen Sebelius and Nancy Pelosi and “Catholics” for Free Choice—opposes the HHS mandate. What divides liberal Catholics from the mainstream is the question of how to respond to that mandate. Should Catholic voters see this as a crucial battle that we absolutely cannot afford to lose? Or should they look at the mandate as one of many issues to take into consideration during this year’s election campaign? In his remarks to America magazine, Bishop Blaire leaned heavily toward the latter option. “The question is what is our focus as bishops,” he said.

Bishop Blaire evidently has his own ideas about “our focus as bishops.” As chairman of the USCCB committee on justice and peace, he has released a raft of statements on other political issues, taking public stands that usually coincide with the positions of the Obama administration. Now he expressed his concern that “some groups ‘very far to the right’ are trying to use the conflict [over the HHS mandate] ‘as an anti-Obama campaign.” He had never voices any misgivings that people ‘very far to the left’ might exploit his own statements in a pro-Obama campaign.

The problem with the battle against the HHS mandate, Bishop Blaire told America, is that some people “are trying to co-opt this and make it into a political issue.” Well, there’s an old saying: “You can’t take the politics out of politics.” The HHS mandate is a political issue. It is a political proposal, backed by some politicians and opposed by others. If you hope to defeat the mandate, you must take sides.

And again, the issues on which Bishop Blaire has issued statements—such as welfare and food stamps and budget cuts and immigration and the Cuban embargo—are political issues, too. So the question is not whether the bishops should take political stands (they already do), but whether they should make the HHS mandate THE issue, or just one among many.

You know the drill, don’t you? For years bishops have been issuing statements informing Catholic voters that they cannot, in good conscience, vote for a political candidate who supports legal abortion. But year after year, USCCB statements have softened that stand, instructing voters that the sanctity of human life is one issue—admittedly a very important one—among several that should be taken into consideration on Election Day. It always has been easy for liberal Catholics to turn those statements to their advantage. And this year will be no different.

Sure enough, as soon as Bishop Blaire spoke to America, columnist E.J. Dionne pounced on the opportunity in Commonweal. Bishop Blaire’s statement had come at a time when the USCCB campaign against the HHS mandate was in the headlines, after 41 Catholic institutions joined in a lawsuit to block the policy. Dionne’s column raised the first questions about those suits. “It turns out that many bishops, notably the church leadership in California, saw the litigation as premature,” he said.

Dionne went on to paint a picture of a divided episcopal conference\, with a few powerful “conservative” prelates bullying the more moderate majority. “For too long,” he complained, “the Catholic Church's stance on public issues has been defined by the outspokenness of its most conservative bishops and the reticence of moderate and progressive prelates.” That description of USCCB affairs might astonish people who have been following the bishops’ highly public campaigns against budget cuts and immigration restrictions and nuclear weaponry and the war in Iraq: subjects on which the “moderate and progressive prelates” have been anything but reticent. But for readers who do not follow the USCCB closely, and especially for those who think that only “conservative” Catholic bishops oppose abortion, the argument may sound plausible enough.

Dionne’s colleague at the Washington Post, Lisa Miller, soon stepped in with her own column pressing the offensive, arguing that only a handful of American bishops support the all-out battle against the mandate. “A much larger group of more moderate bishops has stayed mostly silent, fearful that to take a stand against their bishop brethren would be to lay bare intramural fissures,” she claimed. Again that argument is impossible to sustain in the face of the factual evidence: the statements issued from every diocese in the country, condemning the mandate. But Miller’s narrative may be enough to give liberals an excuse for supporting the Obama administration despite the USCCB’s campaign against his health-care mandate.

Bishop Blaire was the first American prelate to raise questions about that USCCB campaign. There will be others. Dionne and Miller wrote the first columns spinning out the implications of the bishop’s statement. There will be more. In order to defeat the mandate, the American bishops will need united support among Catholic voters. They cannot expect such unity from the laity if they do not maintain unity among themselves.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: refill2008 - May. 31, 2012 1:07 PM ET USA

    For the most part I have thought that politics is our least potent weapon in defending our religious liberty. Useful but not nearly as potent as the whole armor of prayer and fasting. Certainly there is room for both approaches (spiritual and political) in defending the Faith but attacking one another is not one of them. We should be praying for each other success, not giving fuel to the "devil seeking the ruin of souls" by dividing us.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 25, 2012 11:52 PM ET USA

    The Catholic laity can deal with the government, but only the bishops themselves can most effectively deal with each other, and they refuse to do so.

  • Posted by: GabrielAustin9013 - May. 25, 2012 9:15 PM ET USA

    Bishop Blaire has long been a supporter of softening Catholic teaching; he cannot abide communicants who wish to receive Communion kneeling. That he used AMERICA as an outlet for his dissent from the position of hos brother bishops - which is to say for his softening stance on the issue of health cost [it is not health "care"] - is but another of his efforts to carve out a position of his own. That he is from California and was consecrated by Card. Roger Mahony speaks loudly.

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