The Obama White House just doesn’t get the Catholic Church in the United States these days. That blunt fact of public life was demonstrated once again by an anonymous “administration official close to the negotiations” over the Health and Human Services “contraceptive mandate.” The official was speaking off the record to the pliant David Gibson of Religion News Service, whose March 6 story took the administration’s latest prevarications at face value.
“The White House has put nearly every issue requested by the bishops on the table for discussion and has sought the views of the bishops on resolving difficult policy questions, only to be rebuffed,” said the official. “Unfortunately, it appears that some bishops and staff are more interested in the politics of this issue than resolving any underlying challenges faced by Catholic social service providers.” The official, Gibson wrote, was “responding” to the March 2 letter to his brother bishops by Timothy Cardinal Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Responding” is not quite the mot juste here.
Nothing that is of the keenest concern for the bishops’ conference has been “put on the table” by the administration, in any forum. The HHS mandate has been published in the Federal Register, without changes. The administration-controlled Senate rejected efforts to amend the law to accommodate the bishops’ criticisms. Bishops’-conference negotiators asked White House officials whether the bishops’ religious-freedom concerns — which extend both to Catholic institutions and to employers of conscience of any creed — were off the table; yes, replied the White House negotiators. Well, then, what about the administration’s ridiculously stringent four-part test for who qualifies as a “religious employer” able to claim exemption from the HHS mandate? The day Gibson’s story ran on the Religion News Service wire, the bishops’ conference was informed that any discussion of the four-part test was also off the table.
Which leaves one wondering precisely what is on the table, beyond a tacit agreement by the administration to stop acting as if leftist America magazine and the HHS-dependents at the Catholic Health Association are the Catholic Church in the United States, in exchange for the bishops’ conference rolling over and asking to have its belly scratched.
As for the White House complaint that the bishops’ conference has been politicizing this argument, well, Leo Rosten, call your office. It takes a certain kind of chutzpa(which the great popular lexicographer of Yiddish defined as “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, presumption-plus-arrogance”) for the administration to accuse men who have been calmly and intelligently defending a classic understanding of the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause of playing politics. For the administration has been playing politics 24/7, assiduously trying to turn the entire debate into a bogus referendum on “women’s health” while deploying Senate henchmen such as Frank Lautenberg to imply that the bishops, as supporters of the recently defeated Blunt Amendment (which would have restored the religious exemptions contained in Hillarycare), are misogynists determined to send the women of America back to “the Dark Ages . . . when women were property that you could easily control, even trade if you wanted to.”