It looks as if we have reached a point where a compromise between the Obama administration and the American bishops is unlikely. Both sides are hardening in their positions. There are reports that the bishops are planning to take the Obama administration to court, arguing that the contraception mandate violates the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion.
The bishops are distancing themselves from Catholic groups that have expressed satisfaction with the “accommodation” offered to them by the president: Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association, for instance, told reporters she was “pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished.”
The bishops contend the accommodation did no such thing, and they are not alone. Charles Krauthammer called it an “accounting gimmick,” as did Paul Rahe of Hillsdale College, writing for National Review Online, where he said Obama’s compromise was a “farce,” a “snare and a delusion” designed to permit “bishops, priests, and nuns to save face while, in fact, paying for the contraception and abortifacients that the insurance companies will be required to provide.”
Obama’s accommodation proposes that Church authorities who run hospitals, schools, and other facilities will be entitled to tell their employees that the health care insurance provided by the Church does not cover contraceptives, the “morning after pill,” or sterilization, but that the health insurance company that covers the Catholic institution will be free to contact the employees of that institution and inform them that they are entitled to “free” coverage of these things from the insurance company in question. It is this “cut-out” of the Catholic institution that Sr. Keehan contends protects “religious liberty.”
The problem, as Krauthammer and Rahe point out, is that the premiums of the insurance company will still be paid by the Catholic institution. The insurance company will not provide “free” coverage for contraceptives, certainly as time goes by. The cost will be buried in the insurance premium the Catholic institution pays to provide health care coverage for their employees. That is the accounting gimmick. Insurance companies do not exist to offer free coverage.
Is there a compromise the Obama administration could have offered that would have avoided this difficulty? There is. Obama could have required all health insurance companies to provide coverage for contraception free of charge for everyone in the United States in a stand-alone policy, and then issue a press release informing employees of Catholic institutions who do not receive coverage for contraception from their employer that they can contact—on their own—whichever of these companies that they prefer.
Not that this state of affairs would be ideal for Catholics or the leaders of the Church. But it would place the birth control mandate under Obamacare in the same category as the wide range of taxpayer-funded provisions for birth control that the Church lives with, and opposes through the political process in a less than militant manner.
For examples, condoms are distributed in schools supported by Catholic taxpayers. Planned Parenthood distributes contraceptives with the help of funding from the federal government. Medicaid programs in many states—New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Illinois, for starters—provide contraceptives to the poor. Tricare, the U.S. military’s health insurance program, covers birth control pills, diaphragms, and intrauterine devices. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides lists of community health centers, public clinics, and hospitals where birth control devices are available free of charge. Catholic taxpayers pay for all these things.
But what makes the Obama mandate for the coverage of contraception by Catholic employers different—in both its original form and in the so-called “accommodation”—is the directness of the Church’s financing of contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization. Catholic institutions pay insurance premiums that go directly toward providing what the Church considers immoral; arguably, it forces Church leaders to commit an immoral act. (Women who are denied coverage for free contraceptives from their Catholic employer, by the way, are not forced to behave immorally. They are inconvenienced. That is a major difference. There is no moral equivalence.)
Catholics understand that because we live in a pluralistic society their tax dollars and government policy may be directed in a manner they find morally offensive. But they understand as well that the appropriate remedy for such a situation is at the ballot box and working in the public arena to bring about the changes they seek. We don’t expect the bishops to mount the barricades over every morally questionable practice of our government. George Orwell once said, “Civilization is about drawing lines.” It is a point that applies to this situation.
The question is, why didn’t the Obama administration offer an accommodation that would have permitted them to position themselves as the defenders of American women by offering “free” contraceptives? That they chose the “accounting gimmick” instead makes a strong case that they were actively seeking a wedge issue to weaken the Church and its teachings, as well as the Catholic vote. If that is their intention, the leaders of the Church have no room for compromise.
James Fitzpatrick is the author of several books and his columns have appeared in First Things, National Review, the New Oxford Review, and Intercollegiate Review. He writes two weekly columns for The Wanderer.
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