In 1849 and then again in 1852, the Catholic bishops of the United States petitioned the Holy See to grant the archbishops of Baltimore the title of “primate” of the Catholic Church in the United States: an honorific, to be sure, but one that implied that the head of America’s oldest Catholic diocese would enjoy a de facto preeminence as leader of American Catholicism. But the Vatican, nervous that an American “primate” would assert himself in some fashion against Rome, declined to bestow the title (although, interestingly, it didn’t cavil about the title “primate” being given to the archbishop of Quebec City, the Primate of Canada, and the archbishop of Gniezno remained the Primate of Poland even when “Poland” disappeared from the map of Europe in the 19th century).
The notion of a “primate” has little operational meaning throughout the Catholic Church in the 21st century. The Second Vatican Council mandated that every country have a national bishops’ conference. So, today, the president of the national conference is understood to be the principal figure in any local Church. Everyone understands, for example, that Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks for the Church in the United States in a singular way, especially when he speaks for a united bishops’ conference on matters of first principles.
Everyone, that is, but the Obama White House.
In his appearance on Fox News Sunday on February 12, White House chief of staff Jack Lew discussed with host Chris Wallace what the administration was determined to sell as an “accommodation” to Catholic concerns, an “accommodation” that tweaked an HHS mandate requiring that all health insurance provide no-co-pay abortifacients, sterilizations, and contraceptives. Lew tried, unsuccessfully, to shore up the administration’s pretense that something in the moral calculus of the original mandate had changed with the administration’s “accommodation” — which, of course, it hadn’t. What was truly striking about the administration spin, however, was Lew’s suggestion that the Catholic Health Association (whose president, Sister Carol Keehan, had quickly and publicly applauded the administration’s “accommodation”) trumped the bishops’ conference when it came to who-speaks-for-the-Catholic-Church-in-America.
Chris Wallace quoted the bishops’ February 10 statement rejecting the “accommodation,” to which Lew replied, “We didn’t expect to get universal support of the bishops or all Catholics.” Wallace pressed on, noting that the February 10 statement was “the most powerful statement by the Catholic Church in this country” and that it expressed “grave moral concern.” Lew said that he couldn’t “speak to the differences within the Catholic Church,” and when Wallace asked how, then, he would “respond to [the bishops’] statement that this [is] government coercion,” Lew played the CHA card as a trump: “I would point to the statement put out by the Catholic Health Association, which knows a fair amount about . . . health care in this country. They thought this was a very good solution.”
In the administration’s view, then, primacy in the Catholic Church is not conferred by the pope, but by the White House. Thus Sister Carol Keehan could be recognized by the president’s chief of staff as primate of the Catholic Church in the United States, because she headed an organization that “knows a fair amount about . . . health care in this country” — unlike, for example, those mulish bishops who had failed to be taken in by the administration’s shell game.
That the administration would play divide-and-conquer with the Catholic Church in its attempt to ram through the HHS mandate was obvious from the outset, although the White House was likely surprised by the virtual unanimity of Catholic opposition to the mandate’s announcement on January 20 — a unanimity breached only by the likes of Catholics for Choice, a front group for pro-abortion donors that Lenin would have recognized as a gaggle of “useful idiots.” Indeed, the very rollout of the “accommodation” on February 10 reeked of divide-and-conquer. As Cardinal-designate Dolan has made clear in recent interviews, the White House called Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame, with news of the “accommodation,” before it called the president of the bishops conference. Father Jenkins, to his great credit, told the White House that they had the wrong number and that they had to call Dolan. Jenkins later issued a statement welcoming what he took to be the administration’s recognition of “the freedom of religious institutions to abide by the principles that define their respective mission,” although he also expressed concern about “a number of unclear and unresolved issues” to be explored.