Well, I am not sure exactly how he managed to do it, but President Obama has slipped the trap on the contraceptive-for-Catholics issue and regained his political footing to move on. I am not happy about how it has worked out, but I have to admire his political acumen. His “compromise” is anything but—it doesn’t address the problem—but while the bishops are still out looking for a fight, the people in the pews, or at least those who were with the President before the kerfuffle, are pretty much back in the Obama camp. And not just the battle, but the war, has been won and not by the Church.
First—why it is not a “compromise:”
It is not a compromise because the bishops were never involved in the solution. A compromise requires that both sides sit down at the table and work out a solution that both sides can live with but with which usually neither side is completely happy. Granted, the bishops are certainly not happy with this “solution” but not because it required them to give in in any way but because they were not involved in the process and their key principle was not addressed. Granted Catholic institutions do not have to pay (directly) for services that are contrary to Catholic moral teaching, but the principle has not been resolved that Churches or religious groups should not have to conform to legislation that directly violates their moral code—that to force them to act contrary to their beliefs would, limit the practice of their religion in ways contrary to the First Amendment. That is an important principle and they want to get it established as there are other battles yet to come. (See Below.) Of course there are those among the purpled mitered majesties that want far more than is reasonable—those who do not want anyone to have coverage that includes sterilization or abortifacients and they would not be happy with anything less, but that is not realistic. Moreover it is part of the much bigger problem for Catholics and that is that Church leadership has totally blown the Defense of Human Life mission right from day one. (But more about that later.)
My second point:
Almost certainly the bishops have never had anything really to worry about. The recent Supreme Court Hosanna-Tabor case bodes well for the Bishops’ plea that Church institutions should not be required to conform to federal law that violates their religious principles. The case is not an exact parallel, of course, but in the dispute between a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in Michigan and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the Court decided unanimously that religious institutions have a certain immunity from federal legislation. Given that it was a unanimous decision that federal guidelines did not apply in a dispute between a Church and an employee, it seems unlikely that the same court would side against a religious body when that body was striving to protect its moral or doctrinal integrity from government interference. Nevertheless, the bishops were wise to sound the alarm before the matter even went to the courts as there is a very key principle of religious freedom here. On the other hand, wise as they may have been to clarify the issue as one of freedom to be true to one’s religious principles, they have lost in the Court of Public Opinion as most Americans think that the President’s accommodation—it really isn’t a compromise for reasons stated above—is fair. Pursuing this in the courts—which the bishops are bound to do to preserve the principle of religious autonomy—will only make them look obdurate and pigheaded. A mitered pig is not a pretty sight; a herd of them (in this case, a Conference) is absolutely appalling. So even if they win in the Supreme Court—and they probably will—the Church loses and President Obama has still won. (Not that the President wanted a pissing contest with the Church for the sake of winning a pissing contest with the bishops.)
And to be honest—while the bishops have already lost, the war is far from over.
This brings me to the third point we need to consider:
This battle over insurance covering contraceptives is only prelude to the battle that will soon emerge over rights of partners in same-sex marriages. What will happen when employees of Catholic institutions want coverage for their same-sex spouses? There have already been a few minor skirmishes. In 1997 then Archbishop William Levada (now Cardinal and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome) ended up finding an “accommodation” with the City of San Francisco on the City’s requirement that domestic partners be given the same benefits as married spouses. It saved face, and indeed provided a generous solution, but surrendered the principle that the Church should not have to comply with legislation that runs counter to its moral teachings. This is the issue that the bishops are now fighting the Obama administration on. Various Catholic prelates, including Cardinal Dolan of New York, have led spirited but unsuccessful campaigns against legalizing same-sex marriages in their various states. Some critics have claimed that the efforts were less than ardent and even have wanted the bishops to excommunicate or to deny sacraments to politicians who voted for or signed into law bills legalizing same-sex marriage. Frankly, the bishops do their duty in upholding Catholic moral doctrine but they don’t seem very anxious to block the legality in civil law of same-sex marriages. What will they do when they have to start providing spousal benefits?
I will tell you what they will have to do—they will have to ante up. They will whine and complain but they lost this battle decades ago before gay marriage was even a question. The Church in the United States treats civil marriage as a legal reality despite what the Church thinks of any particular union. A Church employee who is divorced and remarried without a Church annulment is granted all the benefits and privileges of a married person. A Catholic employee of the Church who is married outside the Church—and thus who, in the eyes of the Church, is not married at all—is still given the legal benefits and recognition owed to the legal status of the marriage in civil law. It will have to be the same with same-sex marriages as they are legalized in state after state. But wait and see: the bishops will lead a fight—especially after they are bolstered by a Supreme Court decision upholding their right to refuse coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients—to refuse benefits to same sex partners. And here their hypocrisy will be exposed. It will clearly be refusing benefits because the beneficiaries are gay and not because they are in what the Church believes to be an “invalid marriage.” What a debacle that promises to become.
This leads me to my final point for today:
We need to change our strategy as a Church on how we encounter the world in which we live if we hope to change it according to what we believe to be the values of the Gospel. Today everyone knows what the Catholic Church is against but only a few know what it stands for. We have become, at least in the perception of our society, a cantankerous old scold and cantankerous old scolds are not in a position to evangelize. I am not saying that we have to bless everything that comes along, but we do need to stress what we—as a Church—believe in and not what we are against. We would have much more credibility in our campaign to protect the unborn if we were to be known to be anxious to protect all human life against attack. We would have more credibility in our campaign to end abortion if we were in respectful and honest dialogue with those who are concerned about the plight of women in today’s society. We would have more credibility in our campaign to change the law if we made it our priority to change hearts first.
We can support marriage and sound family life without being anti-gay. We don’t have to denigrate human relationships, gay or straight, to affirm our belief in heterosexual marriage. We can accord each and every individual in our society respect and dignity—and equal access to social benefits and legal status—without giving our personal approval to the various relationships they may be in. We might actually witness to the Gospel if we, like the Lord of the Gospels, encountered individuals in their particular circumstances rather than try to reduce people to categories and stereotypes.
The Catholic Church earned a moral reputation through the nineteenth and early twentieth century by building hospitals to care for the sick of any and all denominations, by opening schools and colleges that were as good as any in the land, by being the welcoming home for immigrants to our shores, by being the voice for the poor, by endorsing the corporate strength of the working classes against those who exploited them. Today we are squandering that moral strength left and right and not even so much by the moral failures witnessed to in the sex-abuse crisis as much as by the pompous high-handedness of our prelates and the pharisaical hard-hearted self-righteousness of those who have allied themselves with the religious right in a political cause that hides behind the skirts of a pseudo-Christianity. In a Dom Helder Camara, a Dorothy Day, a Mother Teresa, a Thomas Gumbleton, an Oscar Romero, a Daniel Berrigan, a Geno Baroni, a Horace McKenna, a Bernard Topel, I can see the apostles. In a Catholic Worker House, a Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a Saint Luke’s Mission of Mercy, a Catholic Charities center, a Missionaries of Charity shelter for AIDS patients, a (Jesuit) Cristo Rey Prep School, a Little Sisters of the Poor home for the aged, an Jean Vanier L'Arche community, S.O.M.E. (So Others May Eat), a Saint Francis Breadline I see the Gospel becoming visible. As a community of faith, our Catholic Church in the United States still has it—we only need to put our best food forward. And it ain’t wearing a red stocking and a silver-buckled shoe.