Indeed, the entire White House strategy in this affair — however successfully it may have conned progressive Catholics and much of the mainstream media — suggests that the administration has failed to reckon with the sea change that has taken place in the religious leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States. The administration announced the HHS mandate without any prior consultation with the bishops’ conference, seemingly confident that the conference would acquiesce. When that didn’t happen, the administration consulted Catholic collaborationists in order to come up with an “accommodation” it was confident that the bishops would buy. And when that bit of fakery was rejected by the bishops’ conference for the shell game it clearly was, the administration was caught off guard yet again. Thus the White House was left with a strange Catholic Lite coalition — small-circulation magazines like America and Commonweal, a trade association with a deeply vested interest in keeping HHS happy (the CHA), thoroughly implausible characters like Pepperdine’s Douglas Kmiec, and administration-friendly liberal Catholic journalists — as its allies in selling the spin that a) the HHS mandate had nothing to do with religious freedom, b) the mandate was all that stood between the Republic’s women and medieval sexual peonage, and c) the bishops were being sectarian and unreasonable.
What the administration seems to have missed is that, while the bishops’ conference was being generally supportive in 2009 of health-care reform aimed at universal care (as the bishops had been since 1919), another tide was rising among the Catholic bishops of the United States: a deep concern about the attenuation of Catholic identity over the past two generations. The leader in framing this issue was the immediate past conference president, Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., the archbishop of Chicago; his steady, scholarly insistence that the bishops reclaim responsibility for being the custodians of authentic and robust Catholic identity struck a chord with the generation of bishops whose model of leadership is Blessed John Paul II. And it was those bishops who elected Timothy Dolan as their leader when Cardinal George’s term was finished — an election that had far more to do with the issue of Catholic identity (and the willingness to defend it vigorously) than it had to do with Dolan’s effervescent personality (although the latter didn’t hurt).
These same John Paul II bishops were also shaken by the 2009 Notre Dame affair, when the flagship university of U.S. Catholic higher education gave an honorary doctor of laws degree to an unapologetic proponent of the abortion license, while simultaneously offering him the bully platform of its commencement address. That President Obama took that occasion to suggest that he would be the arbiter of Catholic identity hardened the conviction, among what was now becoming a critical mass of bishops, that the new administration was likely to be unfriendly to the bishops’ core concerns in an unprecedented way.
The administration missed all of this: not least, one suspects, because its Catholic Lite interlocutors were assuring the White House that the bishops had diminished credibility — and in any event could be rolled, politically, through an “accommodation” that pretended to meet their concerns.
The administration also seems to have misread the conference leadership. Cardinal Dolan is one of the few U.S. bishops ever to have done doctoral work in U.S. Catholic history. The new cardinal studied at Catholic University under John Tracy Ellis, dean of the classic historians of American Catholicism; the Catholic defense of religious freedom in full is a facet of the U.S. Catholic heritage in which Dolan, like all students of Ellis, takes immense pride. The administration is also likely to have underestimated Bridgeport’s bishop, William E. Lori, chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, who combines a keen theological intelligence, a sharp wit, and an understanding of Washington gained from years of service in the nation’s capital. When Dolan appointed Lori to be the conference point man on religious-liberty issues, he put in play someone who knows the religious-freedom argument far better than anyone the administration has deployed to defend the indefensible — as Bishop Lori has demonstrated in two impressive recent appearances before congressional committees.