The Obama White House just doesn’t get the Catholic Church in the United States these days. That blunt fact of public life was demonstrated once again by an anonymous “administration official close to the negotiations” over the Health and Human Services “contraceptive mandate.” The official was speaking off the record to the pliant David Gibson of Religion News Service, whose March 6 story took the administration’s latest prevarications at face value.
“The White House has put nearly every issue requested by the bishops on the table for discussion and has sought the views of the bishops on resolving difficult policy questions, only to be rebuffed,” said the official. “Unfortunately, it appears that some bishops and staff are more interested in the politics of this issue than resolving any underlying challenges faced by Catholic social service providers.” The official, Gibson wrote, was “responding” to the March 2 letter to his brother bishops by Timothy Cardinal Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Responding” is not quite the mot juste here.
Nothing that is of the keenest concern for the bishops’ conference has been “put on the table” by the administration, in any forum. The HHS mandate has been published in the Federal Register, without changes. The administration-controlled Senate rejected efforts to amend the law to accommodate the bishops’ criticisms. Bishops’-conference negotiators asked White House officials whether the bishops’ religious-freedom concerns — which extend both to Catholic institutions and to employers of conscience of any creed — were off the table; yes, replied the White House negotiators. Well, then, what about the administration’s ridiculously stringent four-part test for who qualifies as a “religious employer” able to claim exemption from the HHS mandate? The day Gibson’s story ran on the Religion News Service wire, the bishops’ conference was informed that any discussion of the four-part test was also off the table.
Which leaves one wondering precisely what is on the table, beyond a tacit agreement by the administration to stop acting as if leftist America magazine and the HHS-dependents at the Catholic Health Association are the Catholic Church in the United States, in exchange for the bishops’ conference rolling over and asking to have its belly scratched.
As for the White House complaint that the bishops’ conference has been politicizing this argument, well, Leo Rosten, call your office. It takes a certain kind of chutzpa(which the great popular lexicographer of Yiddish defined as “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, presumption-plus-arrogance”) for the administration to accuse men who have been calmly and intelligently defending a classic understanding of the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause of playing politics. For the administration has been playing politics 24/7, assiduously trying to turn the entire debate into a bogus referendum on “women’s health” while deploying Senate henchmen such as Frank Lautenberg to imply that the bishops, as supporters of the recently defeated Blunt Amendment (which would have restored the religious exemptions contained in Hillarycare), are misogynists determined to send the women of America back to “the Dark Ages . . . when women were property that you could easily control, even trade if you wanted to.”
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.
All of this has had an effect. I have been a member of the same Catholic parish in suburban Washington for almost 28 years. But never, until last Sunday, did I hear a sermon applauded. Yet that is precisely what happened when our permanent deacon (a retired scientist at the National Institutes of Health) gave a vigorous, thoughtful defense of religious freedom and called the entire congregation to intensified prayer, penance, and reflection on the defense of that first of American liberties during Lent. Friends around the country report similar experiences with similar sermons.
This, too, the administration did not expect.
David Gibson’s Religion News Service story further quoted “Church officials familiar with the negotiations” who “privately” worried that some bishops’-conference staffers were “veteran cultural warriors” who “often take a harder line than the bishops themselves.” Like Gibson’s anonymous official in the White House, these anonymous representatives of Catholic Lite just don’t get it. They imagine that accusing the bishops of partisanship is going to spook them into acquiescence; they are wrong, because in this debate we are down to first principles. They imagine that accusing the bishops of being at the beck and call of “cultural warriors” will cause the bishops to blunt the sharpness of their critique of the administration’s “accommodation”; they are wrong on this, too, for the bishops know quite well who declared war on whom in this affair.
And while they will doubtless continue to press their points with the administration and in Congress, most bishops know, as the conference leadership knows, that an administration as deeply committed to the abortion license as this one is not likely to back off on its determination to impose the dictatorship of moral relativism through HHS regulations. The bishops are also fully aware that the White House, in good cop/bad cop fashion, will try to mask what it’s doing with the soothing language of “accommodation” while occasionally resorting to further efforts at intimidation from more Anonymous Officials. The administration’s divide-and-conquer tactics will also, in all likelihood, continue; but even the White House must eventually recognize that there is only so much mileage to be gotten from America editorials.
As Cardinal Dolan indicated in the March 2 letter that clearly got under the White House’s corporate skin, the issue of the HHS mandate will almost certainly be decided in the federal courts, where, there is good reason to believe, the administration will lose, badly. The interesting political question to be posed to those who falsely accuse the bishops of “politicizing” the mandate issue is, What else will they lose along the way?
— George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.