For a brief moment, Catholics on all sides were united in defense of the freedom of the Catholic Church to define for itself what it means to be Catholic in the United States. They came together to defend the church’s institutions from morally objectionable, potentially crippling burdens imposed by the Obama administration under the Affordable Care Act. Catholic journalists, like E. J. Dionne and Mark Shields, and politicians, like Tim Kaine and Robert P. Casey Jr., joined the U.S. bishops in demanding that the administration grant a broad exemption for religiously affiliated institutions from paying health care premiums for contraceptive services. Then, on Feb. 10, President Obama announced a compromise solution by which religious institutions would be exempt from paying the objectionable premiums but women would not be denied contraceptive coverage. A confrontation that should never have happened was over. But not for long.
After a nod to the White House’s retreat as “a first step in the right direction,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rejected the president’s “accommodation” as insufficient. Their statement presented a bill of indictments on the fine points of public policy: It opposed any mandate for contraceptive coverage, expanded the list of claimants for exemption to include self-insured employers and for-profit business owners and contested the administration’s assertion that under the new exemption religious employers would not pay for contraception. Some of these points, particularly the needs of self-insured institutions like universities, have merit and should find some remedy. Others, with wonkish precision, seem to press the religious liberty campaign too far.
The bishops have been most effective in influencing public policy when they have acted as pastors, trying to build consensus in church and society, as they did in their pastorals on nuclear war and the economy. The American public is uncomfortable with an overt exercise of political muscle by the hierarchy. Catholics, too, have proved more responsive to pastoral approaches. They expect church leaders to appeal to Gospel values, conscience and right reason. They hope bishops will accept honorable accommodations and, even when provoked, not stir up hostility. In the continuing dialogue with government, a conciliatory style that keeps Catholics united and cools the national distemper would benefit the whole church.
The religious liberty campaign seems to have abandoned a moral distinction that undergirded the conference’s public advocacy in past decades: the contrast between authoritative teaching on matters of principle and debatable applications of principle to public policy. The natural law tradition assigned application to the prudent judgment of public officials. Writing of policy differences in 1983, the bishops wrote, “The Church expects a certain diversity of views even though all hold the same universal moral principles.” Contemporary Catholic social teaching has spoken of policy in terms of “a legitimate variety of possible options” for the faithful and the wider public; it has urged that differences over policy be tempered by charity and civility.
The campaign also risks ignoring two fundamental principles of Catholic political theology. Official Catholic rights theory proposes that people should be willing to adjust their rights claims to one another. It also assigns to government the responsibility to coordinate contending rights and interests for the sake of the common good. The campaign fails to acknowledge that in the present instance, claims of religious liberty may collide with the right to health care, or that the religious rights of other denominations are in tension with those of Catholics. But as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in “Deus Caritas Est,” the church does not seek to “impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to the faith.” Furthermore, the campaign fails to admit that the administration’s Feb. 10 solution, though it can be improved, fundamentally did what Catholic social teaching expects government to do—coordinate contending rights for the good of all.
By stretching the religious liberty strategy to cover the fine points of health care coverage, the campaign devalues the coinage of religious liberty. The fight the bishop’s conference won against the initial mandate was indeed a fight for religious liberty and for that reason won widespread support. The latest phase of the campaign, however, seems intended to bar health care funding for contraception. Catholics legitimately oppose such a policy on moral grounds. But that opposition entails a difference over policy, not an infringement of religious liberty. It does a disservice to the victims of religious persecution everywhere to inflate policy differences into a struggle over religious freedom. Such exaggerated protests likewise show disrespect for the freedom Catholics have enjoyed in the United States, which is a model for the world—and for the church.