Saturday morning’s Washington Post headline and first sub-headline, page one and above-the-fold, nicely captured the confusions that prevailed as of 6 p.m. Friday, in the matter of tweaks to the “contraceptive mandate” issued by the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services: “Obama shifts on birth control / Catholic leaders open to plan.”
Well, no, and no.
The administration “shifted” on nothing. It simply decreed that insurers, not employers, must provide “preventive services” (including sterilization and abortifacient drugs), a shell game that has been variously and accurately described as a “fraud” (Andrew McCarthy, in the Corner) and an “absurdity” (the Wall Street Journal). More to the point, as Yuval Levin pointed out shortly after President Obama and HHS Secretary Sebelius announced their “accommodation,” the newly tweaked regulations “would not actually change the moral circumstances at issue in any way.”
Later in the day, on the PBS News Hour, Ray Suarez confronted Secretary Sebelius with the obvious: Someone was going to pay for the contraceptives provided, and who, if not those who purchased the insurance that had to include these “preventive services?” The secretary then took the absurdity to a new level by claiming that none of this would cost anyone anything, as there was empirical evidence showing that readily available contraception lowered the overall costs to the health-care system by reducing the rate of pregnancy. All of which was, on a much graver matter, reminiscent of an old WPA poster-turned-postcard that I recently saw at the Grand Canyon, which extolled Grand Canyon National Park as “A Free Government Service.” Right.
The question on some minds as of 6 p.m. Friday night, though, was whether the Catholic bishops, who had taken the point in opposing the HHS mandate since its announcement on January 20, grasped that they had been played for fools by the administration. A rather anodyne initial reaction from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to the Obama/Sebelius “accommodation” had sent the blogosphere into turmoil Friday afternoon. Charges that the bishops were “caving” were soon flying all over cyberspace, charges that seemed to accept at face value the administration’s self-satisfaction over the “accommodation,” in which Obama and Sebelius had been reinforced by the likes of Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, and Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., president of Notre Dame, both of whom were quick out of the blocks to praise the administration’s moves.
But the bishops hadn’t caved, and even if they had lost the first battle of the spin-cycle, they certainly hadn’t lost the war. It’s a war they are determined to fight and win, legislatively and/or judicially, and they will do so with the solidarity of allies across the American religious spectrum.
The USCCB’s developed statement on the administration’s “accommodation” came late on Friday, about 6:30 p.m. EST, but irrespective of the timing, the statement made several things abundantly clear:
1) There was no “deal” with the administration and no “deal” was possible under the terms laid out in Friday’s “accommodation.”
2) The “accommodation” failed to address the legitimate concerns of key actors in the heath-care system, including “self-insured religious employers,” “religious and secular for-profit employers,” “secular non-profit employers,” and individuals, such that the proposed new regulations were, simply, “unacceptable.”
3) The “accommodation” continued the disturbing process of “needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions” and threatened “government coercion of religious people and groups . . .”
4) Thus the religious freedom of institutions and men and women of conscience remained gravely imperiled by the tweaked HHS mandate and “the only solution to this . . . problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.”
Now there is the sound-bite for anyone wishing to explain the opinion of real “Catholic leaders” on the Sunday talk shows and during the coming weeks: “Don’t revise, rescind.”
This is not, in other words, a situation analogous to conscription laws, where a humane society makes provision for the pacifist’s conscientious objection to a just law. In the case of the HHS mandate, tweaked or untweaked, the law itself is unjust, and must be fought until it is undone.
This USCCB critique of the tweaked mandate was spelled out further in a letter to the entire body of American bishops signed by Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan and the four other bishops with lead responsibility for the Catholic response to HHS. The letter was originally sent Friday night to a closed website that only bishops can access, but it promptly leaked (and may well have been deliberately leaked). The letter bluntly stated that the administration’s new policy “does not meet our standard of respecting the religious liberty and moral convictions of all stakeholders in the health coverage transaction.”
Then came the commitment to pursue the war against the mandate on all fronts:
“We remain fully committed to the defense of our religious liberty and we strongly protest the violation of our freedom of religion that has not been addressed. We continue to work for the repeal of the mandate. We have grave reservations that the government is intruding in the definition of who is and who is not a religious employer . . .”
The media spin notwithstanding, this is not a matter of “shifts” on “birth control” by the administration; it’s a matter of a grotesque overreach by state power, one that threatens the entire fabric of civil society as well as the first of American liberties, religious freedom. That is why the judicial challenge to the HHS mandate will be mounted on an ecumenical and inter-religious basis, as the protest against the mandate has been. And that is why legislative attempts to reverse what Obama and Sebelius have wrought have drawn bipartisan support.
Perhaps, one day, Sister Carol Keehan and Father John Jenkins will grasp this. But the bishops have, and they’re ultimately the Catholic leaders who count. Whatever the defects in the bishops’ ability to play the spin-cycle game with dexterity, what counts here is the substance, and on the substance there is solid and durable agreement among the bishops. And that, too, counts, for it is on the substance that the war will be fought, and won.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.