The National Catholic Review

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.

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Violete Stevens | 2/18/2012 - 4:09pm
You want compromise in the area of Truth, Faith and Morals;  in that sense, you are a cafeteria catholic.  It is people like you who is slowly corroding the community of the faithful.  Your moral relativism is the cowardly excuse you use to allow the Truth to be broken apart and trivialized.  The Truth in the area of Faith and Morals is 100% and there is no compromise when the Truth is involved.  You are willing to “sell your birth right for a bowl of porridge”.  It is the so called “fine points of healthcare coverage” that is important and in many cases critical.  I pray that the Bishops will never compromise.  It is the lukewarm, wishy-washy people like you that have lead to the trivialization of marriage, family, of God, religion and of course, of the trivialization of life.  I pray that the Holy Spirit will enlighten you.
David Smith | 2/16/2012 - 11:36pm
Yes, Cody (#12), I think that's what I was saying - in many fewer words :o)
Cody Serra | 2/16/2012 - 9:21pm
David Smith: I agree " it's our own conscience we're bound by..."

Let me quote Cardinal Ratzinger:

" For Newman, conscience represents the inner complement and limit of the church principle. Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one's own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which is in the last resort beyond the claim of external social groups, even of the official Church, also establishes a principle of opposition to increasing totalitarianism. Genuine ecclesiastical obedience is distinguished from any totalitarian claim which cannot accept any ultimate obligation of this kind beyond the reach of its dominating will. "

Joseph Ratzinger on article 16 of Gaudem et Spes, in Volume 5 of the "Commentary on Documents of Vatican II", edited by Vorgrimler (New York/London 1969).

David Smith | 2/16/2012 - 4:10pm
In the end, it's our own conscience we're bound by.  If Catholics truly believe that their bishops are all seriously misguided and aren't able to distinguish between a bad choice and a good choice in a matter in of principle and morality, then I suppose people must reject their bishops.  Are you really sure your bishops are wrong and your president is right?
Cody Serra | 2/16/2012 - 3:28pm
Very good article. It articulates the thinking of many of us, the public at large, including many Catholics. I am one of them.

The limited concept of religious liberty the Bishops are fighting for makes a disservice to the legal and universal concept of religious liberty. There is nothing in the law that makes women to use contraception. They already do (98% of Catholic women included). And abortion, like everybody knows, is now the law of the land.
Once the Administration changed the payment policy on the contraceptive health service, the burden of choice or rejection is back on the individual persons, which is where it should be. The Church will not be paying for it directly. It will be part of any insurance policy, via a rider if required.

It seems that many, including the Bishops, forget that we don't live in a theocracy (thanks to God) but in pluralistic society, which is also a democracy, where not everybody hold the same values and principles.

This Administration, or the future ones, should govern serving all people through the laws of the country.  (BTW: I wonder why every four years it seems that the most important problems of the country: economy, jobs, wars, poverty, hunger, international relations and trade, health services availability for everybody, etc. are set aside. And then, the abortion issue and contraception becomes "the issue" politians and Bishops argue about). Why? WHY?
I am a senior Catholic, and my only interest is real religious liberty in a democratic pluralistic society.
MATTHEW FILIPIC | 2/16/2012 - 1:35pm

I will confess that even after sixteen years of Catholic education, I do not fully understand the Catholic position on material cooperation that seems to be at the heart of this dispute. Am I correct in understanding that this perspective argues that a Catholic employer may not provide health insurance that provides coverage for contraception, even if that coverage is not chosen by the employer but is required by law? And that this requirement is an unprecedented encroachment on the religious liberty of employers that evidences a government that has lost all sense of its natural limits?  But if the government were to replace all private insurance with a single public insurance system, paid for by the taxes of all, including Catholic employers, and including coverage for contraception, then our issue goes away?  That is then simply another public policy that is not to our liking and, like policies on immigration, war, torture, etc., is one we hope to see changed over time? Is that where we are? Does that really make sense to us?  Is it any wonder that an Administration trying to respond to our concerns might be puzzled how to do it?

Last Friday, President Obama attempted to reconcile his policy objectives with the Catholic hierarchy’s concerns. I would like to see our bishops reciprocate. If the issue is indeed religious liberty and not contraception, what could the president do differently to resolve it? Focus on the employee’s contribution to health insurance as the source of funding for this coverage? Wait until the health exchanges are up and allow employees to take a voucher from their concerned employers to buy their coverage themselves? Something else? I have heard no such suggestions. It makes we wonder if religious liberty has ever been the real issue in this dispute.
Sergio Leiseca | 2/16/2012 - 11:54am

good morning, Questions: is an "abortion inducing pill", which are included within HHS's definition of "contraceptive services" also an abortion, in theological terms? If not, what is the difference? What will be the regulatory definition of "religious affiliated organizations"? Is the secular and private Catholic employer not also entitled to exercise her/his religious freedom, in exactly the same terms as everyone else, including the Catholic Church and "religious affiliated organizations"? If not, why not? Are you reassured premiums will not "indirectly" fund the availability of the "abortion inducing pill"? If so, what reassures you? And, with due respect, how do you reconcile your statement with Fr. Martin's statements as the author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life", especially his statements on "obedience"? Incidentally, you and everyone else might be interested to read this morning's editorial in the Chicago Tribune: "The bishops aren't alone",0,5595785.story. take care
David Smith | 2/16/2012 - 2:42am
The American public is uncomfortable with an overt exercise of political muscle by the hierarchy.
You're speaking for yourself, of course, not for many of "the American public".  Many of them won't follow you, and you aren't following them.  You've divorced yourself from them, as though only your own political confreres matter.  That's a shame.

I'm sorry you've decided to distance yourself from the USCCB.  You've chosen an extremely thin pretext to do it on.  You've got plenty of company, of course - you're covered, both in and outside the Church.  But you have contributed to a rift that ought not to have been opened again.  For a while, as you say - for "a brief moment" - it was closed.  Then, once more, you've done your own thing, played ball with the secularists, seeing in them, evidently, a better hope for the fulfillment of your social ends than in the "official" leaders of your own Church.
Ronald Grace | 2/15/2012 - 10:52pm
Thanks, Colleen... :)
colleenmae | 2/15/2012 - 10:16pm
Jeff, I read your article. I agree with you. Well written! Thanks.
colleenmae | 2/15/2012 - 10:09pm
I disagree. Nothing in the HHS Mandate has changed, Only the semantics. The Catholic institutions and churches provide the health insurance and therefore pay for it, no matter what President Obama said. We will be paying for something that goes against our conscience. Even Sr. Carol Keehan from CHA is backtracking from her initial support of the President's "accommodation." I must say, I am disappointed with this editorial.
Ronald Grace | 2/15/2012 - 6:17pm
Sorry... let me try my link again: My response is located here...
Ronald Grace | 2/15/2012 - 6:16pm
I have to say I disagree with your points here. They do require more than I can write here so I did write a response on my own website at (

ANTHONY ANDREASSI | 2/15/2012 - 5:48pm
Very wise and prudent words.  


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