After ‘United for Religious Freedom’
The bishops’ road to unanimity and the path ahead

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops


George Weigel

As to tactics, bishops who had taken a more benign view of the Obama administration these past three years had some concerns about the ways in which the conference’s leaders and staff had played their hand since the administration announced its “accommodation” of religious concerns on February 10. Many of these bishops are still committed to an older paradigm of engagement with public policy by the bishops’ conference, in which “staying in play” is the prime imperative. But the majority of the Administrative Committee seemed to think that Cardinal Dolan, Bishop Lori, and others had been admirable in their toughness and in their methods.

And when a Reuters story on the morning of March 13 quoted the ubiquitous Father Thomas Reese, S.J., as suggesting that “political reality” ought to trump Church teaching in the bishops’ deliberations, the consensus on the Administrative Committee hardened behind an unyielding statement that the administration’s “accommodation’” was unacceptable. That consensus was further strengthened by a New York Times poll released that day, which made clear to the bishops, if not to Father Reese, that the administration’s attempt to bludgeon the Church into submission had backfired: Americans across the country’s religious, political, and gender divides rejected the administration’s attempt to force religious institutions to act against their conscientious convictions.

Further, Father Reese was not the only Catholic on the Church’s port side who misfired in the immediate run-up to the Administrative Committee meeting. E. J. Dionne Jr.’s, March 12 Washington Post column did not have the intended intimidating effect on the bishops; precisely the opposite, in fact. Dionne’s attack on the enormously popular Cardinal Dolan was one miscue. Perhaps even more clumsy was his attack on Dolan’s predecessor as USCCB president, Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., of Chicago. More than a few bishops did not appreciate Dionne’s suggestion that the scholarly Chicago archbishop was a latter-day Joe McCarthy waving the bloody shirt of anti-leftist hysteria at the Obama White House, when all Cardinal George had done was describe accurately the landscape that an implemented HHS mandate would leave behind: a country without Catholic health-care facilities, which serve one-sixth of the nation’s patients every year.

As for next steps, the Lori committee on religious liberty will shortly issue a comprehensive statement on the nature of religious freedom and the many ways in which the first liberty is under assault; the Obama administration will not be the only target here — not for the sake of “balance,” but for the sake of the facts. That statement, it is hoped, will be widely circulated in American parishes and will provide substantive material for discussion of the religious-freedom issue in Catholic churches and schools throughout the country. 

As for attempts to find a remedy to the threat posed by the HHS mandate, “United for Religious Freedom” pledged the bishops to engage in a serious dialogue with the administration on the unacceptability of both the mandate and the faux “accommodation.” But the bishops are not fools; they understand, as the administration made clear in HHS’s March 16 “Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” (ANPRM), that the White House will try to drag this out as long as possible, convinced that its “war on women” mantra is an electoral winner; and the leadership of the bishops’ conference does not intend to play the role the administration has assigned it in this cynical game. “Staying in play” is no longer the prime imperative. So it should be no surprise if, after further attempts at “dialogue” with a White House that has already said that the bishops’ principal concerns are not on the table, the USCCB makes clear that it will no longer participate in a charade that served one side’s political purposes.