E. J. Dionne thinks it’s unfortunate that 43 Catholic institutions have filed suit against the Obama administration over the HHS mandate, because that might give the impression — in an election year, no less — that many Catholics are really, really unhappy with the Obama administration.
Dionne thinks this is “unfortunate” because, apparently, the only thing that can explain American Catholics being really, really unhappy with the Obama administration is, you guessed it, partisanship.
There is certainly a case to pushing the administration to rewrite the definition of religious organizations under the health care regulations, but no reason to treat President Obama as an enemy of religious freedom. The bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign [a fourteen-day period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom] is looking more and more like a direct intervention in this fall’s elections.
The Catholic bishops, for the record, have called the HHS mandate “unjust and illegal.” They insist that the mandate “creates and enforces a new distinction — alien both to our Catholic tradition and to federal law — between our houses of worship and our great ministries.” Dionne himself once called this the mandate’s “most vexing problem.” Despite all this, Dionne remains primarily concerned about the bishops’ call for a “Fortnight for Freedom” looking like an intervention in election-year politics.
In what kind of polity, one wonders, would an adequate response to an unprovoked government abrogation of religious liberty not have the kind of political implications that, at least in democracies, usually involve elections? To be sure, saying that an appropriate response from Catholics citizens will have political consequences is not at all the same as saying it is a partisan exercise. Dionne conveniently conflates the two.
(If one believes, as Dionne does, that the “hyperbolic” lawsuits against the Obama administration are evidence of underlying partisanship, then one is faced with some rather absurd propositions: For example, that Father John Jenkins — who caused a firestorm of controversy in 2009 by inviting President Obama to Notre Dame and granting him an honorary law degree – is a GOP booster out to strike a blow against an honorary alumnus of his own making.)
But it’s not just partisanship that Dionne sees, its obstinate partisanship.
How else to explain the fact that Catholic organizations across the country have, like their bishops, no faith in the president’s promised “accommodation”? Could it have anything to do with the administration’s adamant insistence that any promised-but-not-yet-materialized fig leaf of an accommodation must preserve the “most vexing” four-part religious test to which the bishops (and Dionne himself) have so strenuously objected? Try as he might, Dionne just can’t figure that out.
Now the Catholic community is split because many of us who initially backed the bishops cannot understand why they did not respond to the administration’s olive branch.
It takes a special kind of nearsightedness to find oneself increasingly at political odds with Catholics from across the political spectrum, a united bishops’ conference, and a whole constellation of Catholic organizations and associations, only to conclude that they are the ones motivated by partisanship.
Even worse than this acute and unexplained myopia is the insinuation — advance by the editors of Commonweal and then parroted by Dionne — that moral clarity is somehow incompatible with good citizenship because it might favor one party over another:
This initiative [Fortnight for Freedom] is being launched during an election year in which one party has assumed the mantle of faith and charges the other with attacking religion. The bishops need to do much more to prevent their national campaign from becoming a not-very-covert rallying point for the Republican Party and its candidates.
By this logic, Catholics in 1860 should have avoided too-robust condemnations of slavery “for fear of becoming a not-very-covert rallying point for the [anti-slavery] Republican Party and its candidates.” For good measure, Catholics today should keep mum on the abortion issue because it makes Democrats look especially bad. That’s just foolishness, and an easy excuse for cowardice.
Progressive Catholics such as Dionne have lots of reasons to lament the wedge that President Obama has managed to drive between himself and the Church. There may even be reasons (though few good ones) for Dionne to disagree with the bishops’ response to the Obama administration’s proposals. But Dionne’s phony naiveté — that he simply can’t understand, reasons of partisanship excepted, why the bishops have not embraced the Obama “olive branch” — is becoming tedious in the extreme, an ever less convincing fig leaf for his own glaring partisanship.
— Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.