Wednesday, February 8, 2012



Several of my readers have asked my opinion on the latest kerfluffle over the HHS requirement that, like most other employers under the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare, depending on how one feels about it), Catholic hospitals, schools, and other service providers provide contraceptive coverage to their employees. I have had a hard time commenting on this issue, largely because it is difficult to come up with something especially unique and/or insightful on the issue. While not entirely sure that I have succeeded in overcoming that obstacle, I have come up with a few thoughts on the issue.

First, in today’s (i.e., Wednesday, 2/8/12’s) Wall Street Journal, Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen, Barbara Boxer, and Patty Murray, argue for the mandate but frame their argument in terms of the merits of contraception. But this argument does not concern contraception; many, if not most, Catholics agree with these Senators on the merits of family planning by means of artificial contraception and consider themselves no less Catholic because of this belief despite the objections of the Catholic hierarchy. No, this dust-up has little to do with contraception and everything to do with the role of government in telling a religious faith (The scope, or at least the ramifications, of the HHS ruling extend beyond the Catholic Church.) what it cannot, or must, do regardless of the diktat’s synching or not synching with that faith’s doctrine. The HHS ruling is not, as its most vociferous critics would argue, an all out assault on religious liberty or, as the Wall Street Journal’s lead editorial this morning would have it, telling “religious believers to go to hell” (Why on earth would the Obama administration tell Catholics to go to hell? Even if one believes that the Obama administration is somehow rabidly anti-Catholic, one must admit that Mr. Obama is a good politician and knows the importance, indeed, the very necessity, of winning the Catholic vote. More on this in my fourth point.), but it is putting the Church in an untenable position: either violate its stated doctrine regarding artificial contraception or deny health care coverage to its employees, the latter of which would violate the Catholic spirit of service to not only its flock but also to all who seek it and expose the Church to charges of rank hypocrisy. One could thus easily see how some might consider the HHS directive a direct attack on the Church. More likely, however, this move by HHS is an instance of, like everything the Obama Administration, or anybody in the politics business, does, a calculated balancing of political interests. In this case, the Obama administration has bet that this decision will please its liberal base and appeal to the middle, which is resoundingly in favor of insurance coverage for birth control, while not having much, if any, effect on the Catholic vote, which largely ignores the Church hierarchy when it votes. (Again, more on this in my fourth point.) This is Machiavellian politics, not a manifestation of some deep-seated ideological animosity toward the Church. Still, the Church has come out on the short end of this particular calculation. Mr. Obama has to be betting that he made the right calculation.

Second, an argument in favor of the HHS mandate is that, in a democratic, or, more properly, a democratic republican, society, we are all forced to pay, through the tax system, for things in which we do not believe. Those of us vociferously opposed to the Bush/Obama adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have had to pay for them. Those of us opposed to the expansionist welfare state have been forced to pay for it. Those of us who oppose thinly veiled payoffs to street gangs under the guise of “community outreach” projects have been forced to pay for them. Perhaps most germane to this discussion, those of us who would rather save for our own retirements are forced to pay into the Social Security system. So is it that big of a stretch to force the Church to pay for artificial contraception, which at least its hierarchy staunchly opposes?

There might be something to the above argument, but, taken to its logical conclusion, it could lead to all kinds of havoc and, according to conservative Catholics, already has. At least the tax system preserves the fig leaf of fungibility and, to a certain extent, plausible deniability; we pay to support our government that in turn decides what it will do with our money, ostensibly according to the will of the people but in reality according to the will of the lobbyists and others who finance politicians’ ego trips that we call political careers. There is no such fig leaf here; the Church is being forced to directly finance something that it directly opposes. The analogy of having the families of the condemned pay for the bullets of the firing squads is strained, but not completely off-base.

Third, the “Catholic left” (whatever that is. Yours truly has been accused, on occasion, of being part of the Catholic left, a charge to which I really do not know how to respond, due largely to utter other-worldliness of my being considered part of “the left,” Catholic or otherwise, but I digress.) is said to be staunchly opposed to the HHS mandate. Such notables from the Catholic left, as Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association and Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins, have come out in opposition to the HHS mandate, but one wonders how widespread the opposition to the mandate is among the “Catholic left;” there is no way to measure such opposition given that there is not way to define or measure the Catholic left. One suspects that, given its very leftishness, if you will, the Catholic left cannot be all that opposed to the Obama administration’s mandate, unless its opposition comes from the left rather than from the right, terms which tend to lose their meaning in such discussions, but you know what I mean.

To the extent, however, that the Catholic left is doing a convincing Claude Rains imitation and is shocked, shocked that the Obama administration would mandate contraceptive coverage, it should have known better. They knew who they were dealing with, and by that, I don’t mean just the Obama administration. I mean that they trusted the assurances of a politician, which is similar to trusting the marital vows of Newt Gingrich. The Catholic left, or anybody, for that matter, knows better than to trust the promise of any politician, who would sell one out whenever raw political calculation merits doing so.

Fourth, the least important aspect of this issue is its political ramifications, but it is the subject of much discussion and, politics, after all, is one of the main subjects of the Pontificator. One suspects that, since the Catholic vote is the ultimate swing vote and, since Catholics, as a group, largely ignore the admonitions of the hierarchy when casting their votes, the HHS mandate will result in no political damage for the Obama administration. This is especially the case on an issue like artificial contraception, on which, as I said before, many, if not most, Catholics part with the hierarchy. Further, those Catholics who are most offended by the HHS mandate were not going to vote for President Obama under any circumstances.

It thus looks like Mr. Obama made a purely political calculation, as politicians always do, here and determined that he would not lose the Catholic vote by mandating contraceptive coverage for employees of Catholic institutions but would solidify his support on the left, Catholic or otherwise. He will be right to the extent that he frames this as an argument on the merits of artificial contraception; thus today’s Wall Street Journal op-ed by Senators Shaheen, Boxer, and Murray. But to the extent that this can be made an argument about religious freedom and Mr. Obama’s designs on the Catholic Church, this may hurt Mr. Obama with Catholics who, regardless of how they feel about the hierarchy, still are proud of and defend their faith. Thus the framing of this issue by “the Catholic right” (whatever that is) as an assault on the Church and an admonition to all of us Catholics to go to hell.

One suspects that some kind of compromise will be struck here because the heat the bishops and the right have brought on the subject dictates that the Obama administration show some flexibility. The compromise will probably be something along the lines of the compromise reached in some of the many states that already dictate that health insurance plans cover contraception but allow religious organizations that object to such coverage to offer a reduced premium plan with no such coverage but allow employees who want contraception covered to pay for such coverage themselves. Hawaii’s approach is the best example. Such a compromise, which, depending on where you stand is either a logical solution or a fig leaf, will in all likelihood mollify most Catholics and will have absolutely no impact on those members of our Church who would never vote for Mr. Obama under any circumstances.


ppatrello said...

We are conflicted on this issue. on the one hand we do seperate church and state in this great country of ours so one could argue that the government has no right to tell religious employers what they can and cannot offer their employees. it does seem unfair that employees of church run endeavors are penalized due to the beliefs of their employer. i think we can all agree that good mother church should have far more important things to do than deprive their employees of contriception (which is a petty vice that most people want any way) like expunging their ranks of pedophiles.

The Pontificator said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Paul. This is indeed a tough balancing act for those of us who value freedom and harbor suspicions about the government.