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.
The White House posted Jenkins’s statement on “The White House Blog,” along with far more fulsome statements of support for the mandate “accommodation” from CHA, Catholics United, Planned Parenthood, and NARAL-Pro Choice America, and a less extravagant, but still supportive, statement from Catholic Charities. Then on Tuesday, February 14, sharp-eyed observers noticed that Father Jenkins’s statement had disappeared from “The White House Blog” entry on “What They Are Saying: Preventive Health Care and Religious Institutions.” It may be assumed that Father Jenkins, unhappy with the way his statement of February 10 was being spun by the White House into an unambiguous embrace of an “accommodation” the bishops had clearly rejected, asked that his statement be removed from the website — another honorable act on his part, which requires a retraction of my suggestion last Saturday that Father Jenkins and Sister Carol Keehan were, as it were, in the same boat here. Father Jenkins, it seems, knows where primacy in the Catholic Church resides, and it isn’t in the Catholic Health Association.
More White House hamfistedness occurred on February 13. In a media briefing, presidential press secretary Jay Carney said, of the bishops’ rejection of the “accommodation,” “I would simply note with regard to the bishops that they never supported health-care reform to begin with” — a brazen falsehood described as such by Bishop Stephen Blaire later that day in a blunt, monosyllabic rebuttal: “That is not the case.” Blaire, not previously noted for his distance from the administration’s general cast of mind, reminded Carney and the White House that “since 1919, the United States Catholic bishops have supported decent health care for all and government and private action to advance this essential goal.” Blaire concluded with the “hope [that] those who made or repeated this false statement will correct the record and report the bishops’ long and consistent record of support for health care which protects the life, dignity, and consciences of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.” Bishop Blaire may well hope, although his hope will likely go unrequited. Yet it should not go unremarked that the administration’s pique over the bishops’ initial opposition to the HHS mandate of January 20 and their rejection of the “accommodation” of February 10 have succeeded in dividing the administration from those members of the U.S. bishops’ conference who had hitherto been among its staunchest allies.
In one respect, none of this should have been surprising. As I wrote in May 2009, President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame was striking in its attempt to inject the president and his office into a longstanding Catholic debate over Catholic identity in the United States. American religious history, I noted, had been rife with arguments about religious identity for centuries: Puritan identity, Baptist identity, Presbyterian identity, Episcopalian identity, Lutheran identity, and Jewish identity had all been contested, often vigorously and sometimes bitterly. But no president before Barack Obama had ever insinuated himself or his office into those intra-confessional debates, anointing good guys and implicitly condemning bad guys. Yet that is precisely what Obama did at Notre Dame: The good (as in “real”) Catholics were to be those who followed his lead (and those of his putative Catholic precursors, such as the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and longtime Notre Dame president Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C.); the bad Catholics (as in faux-Catholics) would be . . . well, the kind of Catholics who recognized the administration “accommodation” on the HHS mandate as the ruse it was and is.
Like the risible “accommodation” it proposed in the serene confidence that the bishops could be had, the administration’s clumsiness in recent days suggests that it had not counted on the unity the U.S. bishops have been displayed over the past weeks. That unity is based on a common understanding of what is at stake in this debate: the religious freedom of both institutions and individuals, and indeed the very future of civil society. Those stakes are not going to change, which is why the bishops will continue to press for rescinding the HHS mandate rather than revising it — and will do so no matter what Primate Keehan says. Anyone who doubts would do well to read the two refutations of the “accommodation” that have been posted on the USCCB website.
Many will argue, and not without reason, that the bishops might have more sharply challenged Leviathan’s reach into the health-care system when Obamacare was under debate. The core Catholic-social-doctrine principle of subsidiarity, which favors local decision-making and a multiplicity of civil-society institutions in a just state, provided ample grounds for challenging the Affordable Care Act’s de facto takeover of American medicine by the federal government. But having been alerted to this real and present danger by the HHS mandate, having been insulted by the February 10 accommodation and its attempt to play them for fools, and having seen that the administration does not cavil at declaring a new primacy in the Catholic Church in America, the bishops are likely to prove resilient in the fight ahead — a fight they are convinced, rightly, that they can and must win, for their own institutions and congregants, but also for all Americans.
— 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.