Catholic Reaction to Obama’s HHS “Compromise”

There was surely never any chance that the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) could revise its current birth prevention mandate in a way that would be acceptable to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The stated purpose of this HHS mandate all along has been to provide universal coverage at no cost in healthcare plans of all FDA-approved birth control methods, including contraception, sterilization, and some potentially abortion-inducing methods. At the same time, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) requires most institutions and nearly everybody else, under penalty of heavy fines for non-compliance, to subscribe to the same healthcare plans now made responsible for providing the stated birth prevention methods.

However, the Catholic Church teaches that these methods are gravely immoral, and hence imposing them by universal mandate violates the consciences of Catholics among others. It should not have been surprising that when the mandate was first introduced last year the Catholic bishops immediately opposed it with virtual unanimity. It forced Catholics and Catholic institutions into direct cooperation with evil.

The USCCB originally framed its opposition to the mandate primarily with respect to its violation of the religious liberty of Catholics and others; it also found unacceptable the exceedingly narrow religious exemption, which excused from compliance essentially only churches, actual houses of worship.  However, these two objections were not the only reasons the bishops opposed the mandate. In fact, the mandate itself is radically incompatible with the Catholic view of man and society.

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The Obama Administration, however, seems not to have anticipated either the kind or level of opposition mounted by the USCCB. Still, in response to it, an announcement was eventually forthcoming that a “compromise” or “accommodation” would be made whereby the objectionable birth prevention procedures would become the responsibility of the insurance companies and would not be directly paid for by the insured—as if the latter did not still have to pay for the now tainted insurance. In other words, the announced compromise was really no compromise at all, even though the media dutifully reported it as such, and most people accordingly believed that it was a true compromise. Yet what it really amounted to was merely a cosmetic kind of shift in how the objectionable procedures would be delivered and paid for, not that they were in any way less compulsory.

Dolan’s Response Employs Optimistic Rhetoric
On February 1, HHS issued a revised rule providing for the shift that had been announced, indicating how self-insured entities would be treated, and broadening slightly the religious exemption to conform with what the IRS regularly considers to be a religious or a religiously affiliated organization. On February 6, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the USCCB president, responded to this HHS action with a statement pointing out that the revised rule “falls short of addressing the U.S. bishops’ concerns.”

Cardinal Dolan indicated three areas in particular to which the Church continues to object very strongly: 1) Catholic schools, hospitals, charities and the like are still not considered to be “religious organizations” exempted from compliance; 2) these and other organizations will still have to allow their employees to be supplied with the immoral procedures through insurers or third-party administrators (nor can they opt out from this requirement); 3) all  private business employers (and individuals for that matter) remain wholly obliged to subsidize the contraceptive and abortifacient procedures through their insurance plans.

Nor were the Obama cosmetics even applied to this last category, business employers (and individuals); they must comply regardless of their conscientious objections; they enjoy no religious liberty whatsoever in the matter. Cardinal Dolan rightly noted apropos of them that “we have consistently taught our people to live their lives during the week to reflect the same beliefs they proclaim on the Sabbath. We cannot now abandon them to be forced to violate their morally well-informed consciences.” Thus, the whole controversy would still be far from settled even if an acceptable exemption were somehow granted for religious organizations (unlikely as that appears to be).

That the Church had no choice but to reject this supposed Obama “compromise” or “accommodation,” then, was inevitable and entirely predictable. What is perhaps a bit surprising about Cardinal Dolan’s response, however, is the positive, almost cheerful, tone in which he couches the rejection. The USCCB president pledged, for example, to continue dialoguing and negotiating with the Obama Administration after a full year of such activity in which the Administration conceded effectively—nothing. Cardinal Dolan nevertheless credited the revised HHS rule with showing “some movement by the Administration”; he added that “we welcome and will take seriously the Administration’s invitation to submit our concerns”; and he even expressed his hope—clearly a triumph of hope over experience!—for “an acceptable solution that respects the consciences of all.”

Does Cardinal Dolan seriously believe that any true accommodation with the Obama Administration is really possible? On the basis of the record to date, this would seem to be quite unlikely. The Obama Administration seems unalterably determined to impose this mandate. This is what its leftist constituency has been vehemently calling for, after all. Whether the motive is to put the Catholic Church in its place once and for all, or merely stems from an inability to understand how anybody could possibly be truly opposed to contraception in this day and age so as to put up a fight about it, the Obama Administration seems determined to press forward.

Unless the HHS mandate is declared to be unconstitutional by the courts under the Second Amendment, or impermissible under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Catholic Church in America can no longer expect anything but a period of protracted conflict with this Administration. President Barack Obama has made his position and his priorities unmistakably clear, and he evidently does not accept any exceptions deriving from Catholic principles.

Dolan’s Reaction in Light of Catholic Dissent
So why the optimistic tone of Cardinal Dolan, and his hopeful words about finding “an acceptable solution that respects the consciences of all”? Certainly the New York prelate and his fellow bishops have abundantly shown that they know that they have to fight this mandate. The teaching of the Church is what it is; and it is not going to change; contraception is an “intrinsic evil.” But the cardinal and his fellow bishops apparently also understand that the Catholic Church’s teaching against contraception is neither popular nor even very well understood by the American public at large—or even, alas, by many Catholics.

In fact, the Church’s teaching on contraception continues to be widely and mostly successfully caricatured and belittled. Even some of those who have criticized the mandate have pointedly declared that government promotion of contraception is itself acceptable as public policy. This is the case even for some of those who have sued to escape the mandate; they oppose only the potential abortion-inducing procedures, not contraception itself.

Even within the Catholic community, Cardinal Dolan and his fellow bishops are regularly reminded that apparently large numbers of Catholics resort to contraceptive use in spite of the Church’s plain teaching. Indeed, the dissent and disloyalty that have plagued the Church over the past 40-plus years started with the massive rejection by Catholics of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which precisely reaffirmed the Church’s teaching against contraception,

In short, the bishops, in their necessary defense of the Church’s position, do not even enjoy the united backing of their own flocks—not to speak of some of the Catholic institutions in higher education or healthcare eager to go on getting money from a government capable of imposing this draconic HHS mandate. What is perhaps surprising is the degree of support that the bishops have largely enjoyed up to now.

The internal problems the bishops face in successfully continuing their fight are perhaps illustrated by noting the reactions of some of the “usual suspects” among liberal Catholics to the publication of the Obama HHS “compromise.” For example, the Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., of Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center—one of the secular media’s favorite sources for supposed “Catholic” reactions to current events (which proved to be the case again with regard to Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation announcement)—blandly opined that “HHS and the Administration have gone out of their way to resolve the concerns of religious institutions that object to covering contraceptives in their insurance programs. They have found creative ways to provide contraceptives to the employees of religious colleges and hospitals without the involvement of these institutions.”

Similarly, Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter—which the bishop of Kansas City, where it is published, has said should remove the word “Catholic” from its title—believes the Obama Administration has responded favorably to the objections of the bishops. He ascribes this putatively favorable response to the fact that President Obama “does not relish the idea of fighting with clerics” (he only started the fight, after all). Winters actually thinks that the Administration’s “compromise” is nothing short of a “miracle.”

As for what even Winters in passing describes as the “evil” the insurance company will be engaged in as “the vehicle for the delivery of the contraceptive services,” he characterizes the Catholic involvement with this as merely “material cooperation.” In classic Catholic theology,” he claims, “in cases of material cooperation with evil, you can intend the cooperation, but you can’t intend the evil.” Hence for a hospital or university administrator, the intention of providing for insurance coverage for employees is what matters; there is no intention to do the “the evil the insurance company will undertake.” Ergo, the problem is solved. There is no reason why the Catholic Bishops should continue to oppose the mandate.

It is hard to credit that this kind of pathetic sophistry could be taken as a serious contribution to the discussions concerning the HHS mandate. Yet Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne provided more of the same. He actually described the revised HHS rule as an “olive branch,” and, like Winters, he believes “President Obama never wanted this fight.”

For Dionne, “the vast majority of Americans believe that health insurance should cover contraception”; in a democratic society that is supposed to settle the matter; and the fact that Catholics too have recourse to contraception means for Dionne that the Church’s teaching is nothing more than a dismissible “theological objection.” Like Winters, he believes the Obama “compromise” should suffice to end the controversy.

If this is the kind of thinking that even supposedly professing Catholics are capable of in a culture itself almost wholly favorable to contraception, then it is obvious that Cardinal Dolan and the USCCB have a serious problem presenting the Church’s position in a way that will elicit a favorable public reaction. Most Americans today are hardly disposed to view any kind of fight against contraception as a “just war.” A not untypical February 2 commentary in the Washington Post, for example, held that “the refusal of churches and businesses to comply with widely accepted social mores as well as with the law, is an attempt to impose their religious or secular beliefs on their employees.”

In this climate, it is surely understandable that Cardinal Dolan would want to adopt a positive public stance, whether or not he believes any compromise with the Obama Administration is actually possible. He surely wants to avoid if at all possible having the Church almost automatically branded in the public eye as “the heavy” in what is very likely to be a long-term, protracted conflict. No: the Church is reasonable; the Church is willing to talk. Considering what is at stake for the Church, this is surely the positive stance that needs to be adopted in response to the mandate.

It is entirely fitting and proper, in other words, that the Church’s leaders should try to avoid a PR disaster if they possibly can; but what is also needed is a Churchwide program of catechesis explaining the Church’s teaching and why it cannot be changed—and also why Catholics cannot accept and live with the Obama HHS mandate.

(Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


  • Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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