In the three weeks between President Barack Obama’s Jan. 20 announcement that there would be no expansion of the conscience exemptions regarding Department of Health and Human Services mandates for contraceptives and his Feb. 10 announcement of an “accommodation” that effectively does expand those exemptions, the U.S. bishops enjoyed a rare moment of public support from many progressive Catholics.
Groups like the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK and the Catholic Health Association, as well as prominent liberal Catholics like E.J. Dionne and Chris Matthews, joined the bishops in calling for broader exemptions for Catholic colleges, charities and hospitals.
When the president announced his accommodation, it was clearly a win for the bishops. The president had set a one-year timetable to address religious concerns, but the firestorm he had ignited required him to address the issue more quickly than planned.
Instead of taking a victory lap, though, the bishops declared themselves unsatisfied with the accommodation and shifted the goalposts of the debate.
Reese added, “As long as the fight over the HHS mandate was seen as a fight to protect religious institutions from government interference, there was wide support for the bishops. Once it became a fight over contraceptives, the bishops lost almost all their support.”
The real danger in the bishops’ shift from a defense of religious institutions to a defense of the conscience rights of individual employers and corporations, however, is one to which conservatives, and especially the bishops, should be highly attuned. It reinforces the idea that religion is essentially a private matter, between one’s conscience and God. There is no room for the magisterium in such a view and it aligns neatly with the views of some non-Catholic liberal scholars. “I am all for religious liberty,” Boston College’s Alan Wolfe said. “But in my view it is human beings that deserve liberty, not institutions. Indeed, when institutions gain liberty, people lose it.” Reinforcing the idea that conscience and religion are essentially individualistic things is surely not something the bishops want to reinforce in America’s highly anti-authoritarian and uber-individualistic culture.
The U.S. bishops, then, must tread carefully in the public square. Even though they got the president to modify his position on the conscience exemptions with great alacrity, they could easily overplay their hand. “People are sympathetic to the bishops when they are trying to protect religious institutions, but when they push their public policy agenda, whether it be against gay marriage or for immigration reform, they are treated as just another voice in the public square,” Reese said. “If people agree with their arguments, they follow them. If they don’t, they don’t.”
And then there is the group of nuns filing an brief on behalf of the Obama healthcare plan. Reported on Think Progress:
Amici curiae represent the leadership of Catholic women’s religious orders from across the United States. Amici and the orders they serve have a long history of public service in healthcare in America dating back to the 1700s. These services include founding hospitals and free clinics and providing free healthcare to the underprivileged and uninsured. The work by Amici gives them a unique perspective on the unmet healthcare needs of the poor, as well as on the positive impact that will result from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA” or the “Act”). . . .
Amici have witnessed firsthand the national crisis that prompted Congress to pass the ACA. In particular, Amici have seen the devastating impact of the lack of affordable health insurance and healthcare on women, children, and other vulnerable members of society.