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The confrontation between the bishops and the White House over coverage contraception in all health plans has not ended with the president’s announced resolution of the conflict on February 10th. The issue is both theological and political, but neither bishops nor politicians are usually adept at both. It is possible to be a great bishop in theological terms but also a lousy politician, just as good politicians can lack the basics of theology.
What is the political side? Led by Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York as president of the USCCB, the bishops announced in the fall of 2011 that they would launch a huge campaign and lobbying effort to protect religious liberty which they said was “under attack.” “Religious liberty” is a Karl Rovian, focus-group substitute for “opposing same-sex marriage,” “killing stem cell research,” “dismissing gays from the military,” etc. and constitutes what political gurus call “framing.” All of these mirror positions identified with the Republican party and the evangelical right-wing. Adopting the framing of “religious liberty,” the bishops sought influence in the 2012 presidential election. And in many cases, they found candidates eager to denounce Obama’s so-called “war on religion.” You don’t need to be a political insider to recognize that this strategy is intended to push Catholics toward the Republican party.
Many Catholics asked why the lobbying effort did not include other moral issues, like income disparity, for instance. Millions around the globe already had picked up this injustice in the Occupy Movements and would find echo in Vatican pronouncements. Including both religious liberty and economic injustice in bishops’ lobbying, I think, would have questioned the ideology of both political parties, and thus have put the bishops in non-partisan mode. Instead, the bishops pushed a full-throated campaign that was inescapably anti-Obama.
Then the bishops sat down with the president and asked him to do them a favor by giving their not-for-profit institutions a carte blanche exemption from including birth control as preventive medicine! I don’t know if the president raised the issue of the lobbying effort against him as a quid-pro-quo; perhaps he assumed the bishops were smart enough to realize that in the political arena that is the way things work. But I also presume that the bishops had no intention of any compromise: think Speaker of the House John Boehner shouting “Hell no you can’t!”
Even if the president would have given this concession to the bishops personally, they still intended to oppose him with their million dollar lobby. But the exemption to Catholics would have angered the Democratic base that sees birth control as women’s health. Obama would have ended up losing support from the left while still getting attacked from the bishops. The reaction against the Komen Foundation from women’s groups protesting any defunding of screenings for breast cancer, suggests the president understands political currents better than the bishops.
With his Friday announcement, the president “thread the needle” by sustaining both birth control coverage for all women as preventive medicine and relieved religious institutions of the need to pay for it. This was never a surprising outcome; after all, 28 states had already reached accommodation with the Catholic Church on some type of provision. The swift resolution was the novel element, in advance of the year initially left by the HHS for such negotiations. .
The controversy should be over. But I believe the intention for some bishops was never about cooperation with the Obama: it was always about thwarting his reelection. The USCCB general counsel, Anthony Picarello insists no employer be bound to offer birth control coverage in the US. This stance suggests continued opposition from the bishops. Indeed, a statement late Friday suggests that this battle will go on. I fear some prelates, like the bishop of Peoria, are inclined to wrap themselves in the banner of victimization by secularism rather than work with President Obama. Nonetheless, it remains “lousy politics” to announce you are going to shut down all Catholic hospitals unless you get 100 percent of what you demand. Like the-boy-who-cried-wolf, you may be forced to immolate yourself (and all Catholics) in the name of theology rather than operate politically.
As he did with the House Republicans in the debt ceiling fight, President Obama’s compromised with the bishops on the payment issue, but stood firm on women’s access to contraception. Despite the vitriol spewed at him, he may eventually look like the adult in the room.
Next week: The Theology of Catholic cooperation with governments
Anthony Stevens-Arroyo is an On Faith blogger.