E. J. Dionne’s column in the Washington Post today saddens me. Dionne was an opponent of the Department of Health and Human Services abortion-drug, contraception, sterilization mandate when it was first issued last January. The “accommodation” last February — which was merely a promise that something more and different would eventually come — was enough for him to step down.
Dionne sees Friday’s proposal as a peace offering, one the Catholic bishops should take. But one only has to look at the proposed rule issued Friday to see that “this proposal would not expand the universe of employer plans that would qualify for the exemption beyond that which was intended in the 2012 final rules.” (Do read Yuval Levin, if you have not already.)
I’m not surprised Dionne would accept Friday’s proposal. But the narrative he drives is a harmful one: One that sees the religious-liberty controversy of the last year as one of conservatives vs. liberals. Particularly as it pertains to bishops. This is not a party issue, this is an American issue, one we owe it to people throughout the world who crave the freedom we’ve had to get right.
We do not all see freedom as we once did, if we think it is something we can restrict in any way an administration determines, for instance through mandating that contraception, abortion-drug, and female sterilization insurance coverage is a greater good, regardless of an employer’s conscience on these matters.
And do bear in mind that the Department of Justice has been arguing in court that the likes of Hobby Lobby and business owners such as Frank O’Brien and John Kennedy simply do not have religious liberty rights as businessmen. The administration has no interest in accommodating their freedom.
When I talked to Cardinal Dolan after his prayer at the Republican convention in Tampa (you’ll recall he prayed at the Democratic convention as well), he spoke about our hyper-partisan culture where it’s become difficult to have a civil conversation. Say, about religious liberty. I don’t think of him as a conservative because he has been talking about religious liberty in the public square. I think of him as a leader holding a line. One speaking with truth and clarity. He’s not the one who picked a fight about religious liberty. That was the president and his administration:
“I think part of the credibility of the Church comes in its desire to be impartial and to stand above partisan politics,” Dolan explained. “If we are too dramatically identified with either party, that gives the other one ammo to whittle away at our credibility. If we can give the impression that these Catholic leaders — this Catholic community — are doing their best to be open and fair, and attentive to both sides,” they may more easily see that “we are obviously not in it to advance any partisan platform, we are in it for principles. We’re in it for Biblical principles. We’re in it for the very principles of natural law upon which this great republic was constructed,” he told me. “If we can try our best to at least say we are open to both, we welcome an approach to both, we open the doors to both, that may give us more credibility in the presentation of our principles.”
Unfortunately what Dionne is asking the bishops to do is to provide cover for the administration, including the Catholics in the administration, who have waged this attack on freedom. I’m not interested in having a war with the administration over religious freedom — especially one perceived to be about contraception. Largely because knowing what I know about what they have been arguing, outside of the courts, my view ain’t winning the day for the next four years. And also because we are so far gone at this point, we have so many fundamental issues we need to grapple with before many people will feel equipped to defend religious liberty in this or other contexts. That this fight involved women and sex makes it particularly difficult to penetrate media biases and rise above contentiousness to clarity.
And a word about contraception and what Catholics say and want. Mary Hasson from the Ethics and Public Policy Center had a fascinating study a few months back, about what Catholic women know and want to hear about the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception: They don’t necessarily know what the Church teaches and they want to know more. It’s shocking on one level, encouraging on another.
Catholic bishops were united this past year in their defense of the religious liberty — the first freedom — of all Americans. That it did not result in every Catholic and concerned citizen marching on Washington speaks to the complexities of the moment, the foundations that have been eroded and overturned in recent decades. This mandate prioritizes sexual revolutionary values over freedom itself. That’s alarming. And that didn’t change Friday morning. Rather than urging surrender to the administration, more of us ought to be following the lead of those like Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York, Donald Cardinal Wuerl of Washington, D.C., Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, and so many others, who have been leading a renewal of civic leadership, reminding us of our moral duty to defend religious liberty in our nation. And at the same time, like the Green family that runs Hobby Lobby, reminding us that religious faith is not for the sidelines — faithful Americans living integrated lives in service to God and neighbor make civil society flourish and represent our nation at its best.
In an essay in December, Archbishop Chaput wrote:
Why does Thomas More still matter? Why does he matter right now?
More’s final work, scribbled in the Tower of London and smuggled out before his death, was The Sadness of Christ. In it, he contrasts the focus and energy of Judas with the sleepiness of the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane. He then applies the parable to his own day and the abject surrender of England’s bishops to the will of Henry VIII: “Does not this contrast between the traitors and the Apostles present to us a clear and sharp mirror image . . . a sad and terrible view of what has happened through the ages from those times to our own? Why do not bishops contemplate in this scene their own somnolence?”
More urges the bishops not to fall asleep “while virtue and the faith are placed in jeopardy.” In the face of Tudor bullying, he begs them, “Do not be afraid”—this from a layman on the brink of his own execution.
Of course, that was then. This is now. America 2012 is a very long way, in so many different ways, from England 1535.
But readers might nonetheless profit in the coming months from some reflection on the life of Sir Thomas. We might also take a moment to remember More’s friend and fellow martyr, John Fisher, the only bishop who refused to bend to the king’s will; the man who shortly before his own arrest told his brother bishops: “. . . the fort has been betrayed even [by] them that should have defended it.”
We’d all profit from reflection on this. We betray the fort every day, in so many ways — and most often by indifference, despair, saying nothing, doing nothing. With a firm purpose of amendment, we can stand together in the rebuilding of our civil society, in the defense of our freedom, in the renewal of what has made us an exceptional beacon of freedom and flourishing.