The government tries to impose an outrageously coercive mandate on the Catholic Church, one that demands that the Church do what its settled moral convictions tell it that it cannot do; the Church’s leaders firmly and politely state that this is wrong as a matter of constitutional first principles. The government then proposes an “accommodation” of the bishops’ concerns that is an insult to the bishops’ intelligence, being nothing less than a cynical shell game; the bishops promise to study the “accommodation,” and then politely and firmly state that it is unacceptable. The bishops seek a legislative remedy, in the form of the Blunt Amendment in the Senate, and are met by the serial calumnies of the administration’s Senate myrmidons; the administration’s allies in the press, in the chattering classes, and in the activist world commit slander against the Church while lying about the nature of the mandate, its scope, and its implications. The White House press secretary is sent out to opine that the U.S. bishops have never been interested in health-care reform, which in fact they’ve been interested in since 1919, four and a half decades before the press secretary was born.
Who is being “strident” here? Who is coercing whom? Who has declared a culture war on whom? Only those lost in the intellectual fog of their own partisanship can fail to see that the bishops have in fact been that “leaven in society” that the brave Father Unnamed wants them to be — and they have done so precisely by leading a public reflection on the meaning of religious freedom in full, at a moment when that first of American liberties is being whittled down by the present administration to a private right of worship.
One of the most maddening aspects of this otherwise bracing debate has been the refusal of those who support either the HHS mandate or the bogus administration accommodation to debate honestly, in terms of the facts, and fairly, in terms of the rhetoric. This leads one to the suspicion that the administration’s defenders know that they have a losing case. The administration will likely continue its intransigence, for it cannot meet the bishops’ full concerns without enraging some of its (most well-heeled) allies. There is no remedy in Congress, thanks to Democratic control of the Senate, and the enthrallment of the Democratic party to those who would make Sandra Fluke a 21st century Joan of Arc. But the bishops have a winning case in the courts, on both First Amendment grounds and because of the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Indeed, serious constitutional scholars believe that any test of the HHS mandate in the federal courts will result in a victory for the bishops of the magnitude of the Hosanna-Tabor decision in January, where the administration lost 9–0.
The shrewder defenders of the administration know this. That is why they and their allies in the Catholic Lite Brigade, including the Lite Brigade’s journalistic regiment, are trying to roll the bishops now, before the courts get to work. Having failed even to engage the substantive arguments, they are now resorting to intimidation tactics — “You’ll seem partisan! You’ll look like the Tea Party!” — in order to soften up the ground for another “accommodation.”
All of which, in truth, is as insulting to the bishops as the intellectual contempt the administration showed in its February 10 “accommodation.” But that is the sorry state to which the administration and its Catholic apologists have come.
— George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon chair in Catholic studies.