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The bishops' tougher response to the Obama 'compromise' mandate

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 11, 2012

After an initial muted reaction to President Obama’s proposed “accommodation,” the leaders of the US bishops’ conference have released a second, stronger statement, declaring that the mandate for contraceptive coverage in health-care programs remains “unacceptable and must be corrected.”

On Friday evening, February 10—several hours after President Obama unveiled his “compromise” proposal—the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released an official statement signed by five leading prelates. The bishops said that the revised plan “continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions.”

That clear statement of opposition contrasted with an earlier response from the USCCB, in which Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York had described the revised plan as “a first step in the right direction.” While that initial reaction was ambiguous, the bishops’ 2nd statement left no doubt that the USCCB would continue to oppose the Obama mandate.

Unfortunately, before the bishops released their second statement, leaders of two of the largest Catholic employers in the country—the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities USA--had released their own statements indicating that they were satisfied with the Obama administration’s “compromise” proposal. So while the political battle continues, the Catholic forces are already split.

In a perceptive analysis of the political debate, reporter Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times said that in its decision to amend the original HHS mandate, the Obama administration was “never really driven by a desire to mollify Roman Catholic bishops, who were strongly opposed to the plan.” She explained:

Rather, the fight was for Sister Carol Keehan--head of an influential Catholic hospital group, who had supported President Obama’s health care law--and Catholic allies of the White House seen as the religious left. Sister Keehan had told the White House that the new rule, part of the health care law, went too far.

Now that Sister Keehan has endorsed the Obama “compromise” (along with Father Larry Snyder of Catholic Charities USA), the Obama administration can claim that many Catholics, including some who had originally opposed the plan, now see the wisdom of his ways. President Obama does not intend to persuade the American bishops to support his proposal; he intends to siphon off support for the bishops among American Catholic voters, driving a political wedge further into the country’s Catholic community.

Isn’t this always the technique that subtle politicians use to attack the power of the Catholic Church? King Henry VIII set himself up as supreme ruler of the Church in England, superior to the bishops; the Chinese Communist regime urges the faithful to take their guidance from the Catholic Patriotic Association rather than the stubborn bishops of the “underground” Church; the Chavez regime in Venezuela boasts that the “people’s Church” supports the president even while the bishops warn against the dangerous expansion of his powers. Only rarely do brutal tyrants attempt a frontal assault; much more frequently, Machiavellian leaders attempt to draw invidious comparisons between the “unreasonable” bishops who cling to traditional Catholic teaching and the more accommodating Catholics—never in short supply—who will accept the authority of the state.

In their later statement, USCCB leaders reveal that they were not consulted in advance about President Obama’s proposed “accommodation.” The bishops who have been most heavily involved in this battle apparently now recognize that they are unlikely to reach an agreement with the White House. In their official statement, they said:

We will therefore continue—with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency—our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government. [emphasis added]

Still, despite its clear rejection of the proffered compromise, the bishops’ second statement left the door open to the possibility that some future compromise could secure their acquiescence. Their statement said that the proposal required further study and “careful moral analysis,” and said that the compromise plans presented at the White House on February 10 “appear subject to some measure of change.” These measured words might give some readers the impression that the bishops are hoping to amend the Obama proposal, rather than to defeat it.

Indeed even in their final call to action, when the bishops say that they hope to “correct this problem,” they do not issue a clear call for the rejection of the administration’s proposal and/or the removal of those elected officials who have devised and supported it. Perhaps fearful of being caught up in partisan politics, the bishops shrink from drawing the obvious conclusion from this revealing episode: that the Obama administration is contemptuous of religious freedom and determined to undermine the authority of the Catholic hierarchy.

President Obama, on the other hand, is not averse to a political battle with the bishops. And if he is willing to risk a direct confrontation with the bishops in this, an election year, one can only imagine how blithely he would ride roughshod over Catholic protests during a second presidential term, when he would not need to worry about re-election!

Were the leaders of the USCCB fully conscious of the political challenges that now face them? Thanks to the reporting work of Rocco Palmo, we now have some insight into their thinking. Palmo obtained and posted a confidential memo to the members of the USCCB, outlining the thoughts behind the second official statement from the bishops’ conference.

(The confidential memo, like the second statement from the USCCB on the revised mandate, was signed by Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the president of the bishops’ conference, and by four bishops who chair committees within the USCCB: Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the pro-life committee, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the doctrinal committee, Bishop Stephen Blaire of the domestic-policy committee, and Bishop William Lori of the religious liberty committee.)

The bishops’ memo reiterated the main objections to the Obama mandate, and stressed that some questions—such as the effects on institutions that self-insure—remain unclear. They also raised a question that had not yet figured prominently in USCCB statements, regarding the effect of the mandate on non-religious employers. Although the bishops have devoted their attention to the moral crisis that would face Church-run organizations required by law to furnish contraceptives for their employees, the same crisis already faces Catholic individuals (or others morally opposed to contraception) working at secular firms. A Catholic nun running a charitable agency might qualify for some degree of exemption from the Obama mandate; a Catholic layman running a manufacturing firm would not. “This presents a grave moral problem to be addressed,” the USCCB leaders reminded their brother bishops. That brief mention of the problem is a welcome reminder that Church leaders have a duty not only to secure the rights not only of Church-related institutions, but of all the faithful. This idea was explained by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1992:

Where a matter of the common good is concerned, it is inappropriate for Church authorities to endorse or remain neutral toward adverse legislation even if it grants exceptions to Church organizations and institutions. The Church has the responsibility to promote family life and the public morality of the entire civil society on the basis of fundamental moral values, not simply to protect herself from the application of harmful laws.

It will be interesting to see whether the recognition of this duty, now mentioned in an internal memo, becomes evident in the American bishops’ public statements.

In their memo the five bishops who are leading the debate outlined three main principles driving their strategy. The first was a commitment to protect religious liberty, and the third was a determination to oppose a wider use of contraception, sterilization, and the use of abortifacient drugs. But in light of the analysis above, the bishops’ middle point is most interesting:

Second, it is the place of the Church, not of government to define its religious identity and ministry.

So the USCCB leaders recognize the thrust of the Obama administration’s political offensive. They realize that the White House has set out to divide and conquer, to separate the Catholic laity from their bishops. Now surely they see that when groups like the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities USA side with the Obama administration, they are contributing to the erosion of the bishops’ authority and the splintering of the Church. So this is not merely an important political battle; it is a critical test of the bishops’ overall authority.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: impossible - Feb. 15, 2012 12:21 AM ET USA

    Section 1901 of the CCC on Authority nails our Obama problem: The diversity of political regimes is morally acceptable, provided they serve the legitimate good of the communities that adopt them. Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed.

  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Feb. 13, 2012 12:55 AM ET USA

    What does Sister Keehan and Fr. Snyder have to gain by submitting to Obamas' mandate but to cede to the state what religion has a constitutional right to be and do, namely to carry out its mission in the world and society free of government control? In ceding their autonomy to the state are they not effectively seceding from the relgious ideals of their Catholic apostolic mission, eroding further the relgious protections guaranteed by law as well as undermining the authority of the bishops?

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 12, 2012 11:13 PM ET USA

    It was clear in 2008 when McCain won the Republican nomination that Catholics would ensure the Obama a second term. With the Republican Party sneering at Santorum, and the U.S. bishops either too timid or out of touch with reality to command their laity to vote Catholic, some of us may indeed be headed for a literal martyrdom in Obama II. Three years of descent toward Third World status has only emboldened the Anti-Catholic forces to mimic their cousins in Venezuela, Iraq, and Western Europe.

  • Posted by: koenigj7311 - Feb. 12, 2012 6:19 PM ET USA

    Good analysis, Phil, but it could have been better by referencing Pope Pius XI's "Casti Connubii." ( ) Pius XI's clear teaching describes areas of authority that are off limits to civil government. He also explains the demise of societies that don't get it right. That be us!

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 11, 2012 11:21 PM ET USA

    When dissent emerged ovr Humanae Vitae, Pope PaulVI refused to discipline the dissidents because he was afraid of schism. Too bad. We have schism, and much greater than it would have been in 1968.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 11, 2012 9:08 PM ET USA

    Thank you for the information in this article. It is disheartening to see catholics divided on such a cut and dried issue. I hope that this will be a wake up call for the catholic church in America. Judie Brown's book, The Broken Path - How US Bishops Got Lost in the Weeds of American Politics, was very eye opening. I pray that the Bishops will stand up for Catholicism and do a better job catechising catholics. Obama is only in the whitehouse because Catholics voted for him.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Feb. 11, 2012 6:38 PM ET USA

    When the government claims that it can tell an individual that it must purchase an item simply because that individual exists, then it will feel very free to tell a religious institution that it must do something against its own teaching. So if the bishops had fought against this on the principle of subsidiarity, they would have a much stronger base to argue against the HHS mandate.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Feb. 11, 2012 6:33 PM ET USA

    See? What did I tell you? We just needed to wait a little bit. However, even with their much stronger statement, I have to say that the bishops lost this battle long ago. They lost it when they conceded that ObamaCare wasn't worth their time and effort as long as it protected conscience rights. But, to your point Phil about the '92 CDF document, they should have stood up against the individual mandate. That is plainly unjust. Being forced to pay for something just because I breathe is wrong.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 11, 2012 4:46 PM ET USA

    Alas,the bishops have long lost credibility with the general public & many of the faithful because of the sex scandals, and also their proclamations on prudential matters (immigration, socialized medicine)on which even faithful Catholics can disagree. Besides, according to the polls, most Catholics are not faithful when it comes to non-negotiable sexual matters (contraception, abortion). I fear Obama will not lose "Catholic" votes over all this. So why should he worry?

  • Posted by: JP810 - Feb. 11, 2012 2:36 PM ET USA

    Excellent analysis, Phil. The ordinary person in the pew needs to stand up and tell Obama "no more"!!!!!!!!!! One can perfectly exercise their right in this respect by "not" voting for him!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Posted by: - Feb. 11, 2012 2:28 PM ET USA

    We are witnessing the sunset of the American Experiment. The current "health care" law is an exercise in totalitarian rule. Even with the fig leaf of an exemption for religious organization, however, broad or narrow, this law, which violates the principle of subsidiarity, is a crushing blow to the rights of conscience for all citizens and organizations. The bishop's must stand strong. Else, there will be nowhere to shelter. Unless the shepherds guard the flock, the wolves will ravage it.

  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Feb. 11, 2012 2:14 PM ET USA

    Henry didn't "set himself up", but his parliament did. The title was "Defender of the Faith" (Latin fidei defensor), not "Protector", and although granted to Henry by Leo X, was revoked by Paul III when Henry broke with the Holy See. It was subsequently conferred on Henry by the English parliament (referring now, of course, to defense of the Anglican church) and is used by his successors to this day.

  • Posted by: jp796848 - Feb. 11, 2012 1:52 PM ET USA

    The words: “contraceptives *and* abortion-inducing drugs” keep coming up in this debate. The Pill *is* an abortion-inducing drug! It works in two ways. It can prevent ovulation, but if ovulation occurs, it prevents implantation of the young human being in the uterus.

  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Feb. 11, 2012 1:38 PM ET USA

    Friday's proffered "compromise" was nothing of the sort. If the companies that insure the Church's employees are forced to pay for the objectionable coverage, can anyone seriously doubt that they'll find a way to pass the costs back to the Church, maybe in the form of slightly higher premiums for other treatments? Of course they will. The result will be the same, except that Mr. Obama, Sr. Keehan and Fr. Snyder will have the political cover they need to stay in power.

  • Posted by: impossible - Feb. 11, 2012 1:30 PM ET USA

    Thanks Phil for excellent report. Of late I perhaps have an inordinate interest in the elephants in the room that are seemingly ignored. What’s wrong with the bishops telling Catholics and others concerned about our God-given rights that they should not only contact their elected officials but also remember in November to vote against those who seem determined to eliminate those rights? It’s those people who are the cause of our problems; the culture is the effect of their ideology/policies.

  • Posted by: Pete - Feb. 11, 2012 1:09 PM ET USA

    Just how much further are the bishops willing to allow dissent among those supposed to be "the faithful"? The time is long past come for them to take action! Sr. Keehan should have been seriously counseled and/or excommunicated long ago for her anti-Catholic stances and beliefs. Yes, this is harsh, but somewhere a stand is going to have to be made and it's going to take martyrs--physical or dry. Either we're Catholics or we aren't. There just isn't any middle ground!

  • Posted by: unum - Feb. 11, 2012 12:59 PM ET USA

    A house divided against itself cannot stand. Keehan and Snyder must go and be replaced by responsible leaders or the organizations must lose their "Catholic" identity. At present, they are an impediment to the work of the Church and it is time for the bishops to stop equivocating and act. The Church is failing in its duty to teach clearly because of dissidents like Keehan and Snyder, and U.S. Catholics are unsure of current teaching about contraception and abortion because of it.

  • Posted by: phil L - Feb. 11, 2012 12:55 PM ET USA

    Cloudchaser, you're right. I meant "protector of the faith" in a general sense, but forgot that King Henry had been awarded that title. I've amended the piece to eliminate that confusion.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 11, 2012 12:27 PM ET USA

    I am sorry to have to correct you on one statement here and it is historical. King Henry DID NOT set himself up as Protector of the Faith. That was a title bestowed upon the English sovereign by the Holy Father for writing a paper against Martin Luther, "In Defense of the Seven Sacraments." This was while Henry was still sane, and a good Catholic.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 11, 2012 12:21 PM ET USA

    It would appear that both the Catholic Hospital Assoc and Catholic Charities are more concerned with their flow of funds from the Obama regime than protecting religious liberty under the first amendment. The USCCB cannot afford to compromise on religious freedom without loosing the credibility they have regained by standing up for conscience protection.

  • Posted by: Bellarminite1 - Feb. 11, 2012 12:15 PM ET USA

    Can the bishops replace Sr. Keehan and Fr. Snyder?