The Corner

An Imaginary Compromise

Can we all get one fact straight? As the president was announcing an “accommodation” in a press conference with Kathleen Sebelius on February 10 concerning the HHS contraceptive mandate, a rule was filed in the Federal Register that was unchanged (the word “unchanged” even appears four times in the final rule as filed) from the regulation the same Cabinet secretary had announced on January 20, that had been originally presented on August 1. That August rule had the narrowest of religious exemptions. And that rule was subsequently filed in the Federal Register.

Today E. J. Dionne makes reference to a compromise, suggesting that there is a bargaining table that Catholic bishops have walked away from. But there is no compromise.

The White House wants us to trust that somehow this will all work out in a way that will be morally licit for all involved. Whatever you think of the prudence of that leap of faith, the fact remains that there is no compromise that carries the weight of law or even the written word.

As Richard Doerflinger from the bishops’ conference has put it: “This intransigent refusal by the Administration to compromise, to make ANY change in the exemption, is the ONLY thing happening on February 10 that had any legal force.”

Of the February 10 “accommodation” press conference, he added:

In a statement that has no legal force, the Administration also said it plans to issue an additional rule by next August regarding THE MANNER IN WHICH the mandate will be imposed on the many religious organizations that, AS BEFORE, remain “non-exempt.” Since it is against these organizations’ conscience to cover such items, insurers (acting on orders from the government) will insert them into the coverage instead. These items will be included in the health plan with no additional premium, because (the government says) the insurer will get that money back when it saves the cost of childbirths those employees would otherwise have had.

The Administration’s “compromise,” then, is this: These organizations’ health plans must include items that violate their religious and moral teaching; the organization may state a conscientious objection, but that objection will be ignored and have no practical impact. Any more genuine compromise — anything that actually freed Catholic schools, hospitals, and charitable organizations from the mandate — is out of the question, because on February 10 the Administration issued a final rule making such genuine accommodation illegal.

Or as the sober Cardinal Dolan, the current president of the bishops’ conference, put it in a letter to his brother bishops:

On February 10th, the President announced that the insurance providers would have to pay the bill, instead of the Church’s schools, hospitals, clinics, or vast network of charitable outreach having to do so.  He considered this “concession” adequate. Did this help?  We wondered if it would, and you will recall that the Conference announced at first that, while withholding final judgment, we would certainly give the President’s proposal close scrutiny. Well, we did — and as you know, we are as worried as ever.  

For one, there was not even a nod to the deeper concerns about trespassing upon religious freedom, or of modifying the HHS’ attempt to define the how and who of our ministry. Two, since a big part of our ministries are “self-insured,” we still ask how this protects us.  We’ll still have to pay and, in addition to that, we’ll still have to maintain in our policies practices which our Church has consistently taught are grave wrongs in which we cannot participate.   And what about forcing individual believers to pay for what violates their religious freedom and conscience?  We can’t abandon the hard working person of faith who has a right to religious freedom. And three, there was still no resolution about the handcuffs placed upon renowned Catholic charitable agencies, both national and international, and their exclusion from contracts just because they will not refer victims of human trafficking, immigrants and refugees, and the hungry of the world, for abortions, sterilization, or contraception.  In many ways, the announcement of February 10 solved little and complicated a lot.  We now have more questions than answers, more confusion than clarity.

Confusion, of course, is exactly what the White House is counting on as a winning strategy: Characterize the debate as being simply about behind-the-times Catholics picking a fight on contraception. Insist that significant religious-liberty concerns are nothing but the Tea Party somehow having taken control of the Catholic bishops’ conference (which not so long ago Democrats would have considered a vital ally on just about anything but abortion). Accuse the Catholic bishops of being “violently anti-woman” and “demanding that the government step in and use the force and power and police power of the state to prevent women from taking birth control because the bishops have failed,” as chief Obama administration ally National Organization for Women president Terry O’Neill has.

Allies of the White House are doing an injustice to the truth by pretending that anything was fixed on February 10, that Friday the president announced an “accommodation.” It was nothing but a wink to allies — and allies, including Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards, were instrumental in blessing it. To even call it a compromise, never mind accept it, is to be the cheapest of dates.

I understand that Americans want to trust their president. I understand that religious Americans might want to be unconfrontational. But, folks, our liberty in America as we know it is under attack by this administration. Defend the defenders of religious liberty here. And let’s argue with facts, not wishful thinking about good intentions.

In his commencement address at Notre Dame in 2009, the president told graduates: “You will hear talking heads scream on cable, read blogs that claim definitive knowledge, and watch politicians pretend to know what they’re talking about.” He went on to explain that we cannot really know anything important, that it is “beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what he asks of us. . . . This doubt should . . . temper our passions and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate.”

His relativist view of religion extends to his political rhetoric and operating policies. He might be tempted to hit replay and make the Catholic bishops protesting the HHS mandate listen to the speech again because this is how he wants Americans to approach his administration’s policies. Have faith in this cornerstone of my transformational agenda. Believe it will not force you to violate your conscience, despite what you see before you in the law. Ignore those ugly critics. Be reasonable and have faith in me.

But in matters of policy — and potential legal and financial penalties — it’s only prudent to work with what actually has the force of law.


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