“Catholic Left” and “Catholic Right” are inadequate and irksome labels that too often sully all of us with the “ick” of politics even when our churchy disagreements are not rooted in politics at all, but simply upon a difference in vision and emphasis.
So stipulating, and resigned to using more scare quotes than I would like, I am struck by what little assist President Obama gave to his friends on the “Catholic Left” with last Friday’s “accommodation” to their concerns with his HHS mandate. His brief statement was meant to get a hot story off the media front burners (a qualified success) and to telegraph to progressives that he wanted them back in the fold.
To that end, the White House seemed to have conferred not with the concerned Bishops but with members of the “Catholic Left” whose criticism of his original plans had had a weighty effect on others, and whose progressive credentials made their alliance vital to retain; he effectively went to Sr. Carol Keehan, President of the Catholic Health Association, and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, and sought imprimaturs that were not theirs to give, on what the press has taken to call (in apparent ignorance of the word’s meaning) his “compromise.”
Even before the president spoke, Keehan’s approving statement was released through the White Houses own press portals, with Dionne’s endorsement swiftly following. The one-two punch of Keehan and Dionne was meant to knock out the Bishops before they’d had a chance to find their mouth guards or rise from their corners, and also to signal that it was safe for the “Catholic Left” to regroup behind Obama.
It has not gone precisely as planned. If the matter has successfully been driven from the front pages–and why wouldn’t it be, since the press had initially tried to ignore the story–no one has yet been knocked down by members of the “Catholic Left” racing back into Obama’s corner. Stunned by Obama’s initial plans (which, by the way, were codified last Friday, in their original form, even as Obama was speaking) the “progressives” are paused and perhaps skittish.
Michael Sean Winters admits to registering ambivalence at the White House’s “accommodation” and seeking the input of trusted friends; others have been critical of the bishops but not wholly committed to Obama’s decision, which—it must be said—was neither a compromise nor a negotiated offer; Catholic Charities head Father Larry Snyder has walked back his original statement of support in favor of more cautious words; the ultra liberal retired Cardinal Roger Mahony has reiterated his resistance, calling Obama’s move an “outrage” that “actually makes the entire matter far worse.”
Whether the “Catholic Left” can “hope” for more from Obama is questionable, as the White House Chief of Staff said over the weekend that the administration was finished with the issue.
This unwillingness of staunch Obama supporters to quickly embrace his latest idea and perform a full-pivot from the bishops has become for me the most interesting part of the story. As a rule, I think any of these men would be all-too-happy to leave the Bishop’s corners for Obama’s on this particular issue, but–in good conscience–they simply cannot. His stated mandate was so shocking to ideas of justice and constitutionality that whether the president is dealing in good faith has now become an unknowable—why did Obama feel a need to ensnare the churches in an issue that could have been attended to in other ways?
If, upon gauging the dismay of his allies within the church, Obama had truly meant to assuage the consciences of his Catholic allies, he could have done so easily and clearly; instead his words suggested to some that even the narrow conscience clause offered in his first decision was at risk, and his solution looks like a shell game, analogous, as blogger Marc Barnes put it, to trying to force Orthodox Jewish restaurants to sell bacon, but then “accommodating” them by forcing them to “pay a Gentile with a bacon cart to serve pork” for them.
For that matter, if Obama had been genuinely interested in pleasing believers in general and Catholics in particular, he would have conferred with the bishops, and gotten their thoughts on the nuances between direct and indirect co-operation with evil, rather than going around them.
But Obama’s move on Friday wasn’t about nuance; it was about destroying the surprising unity of the “Catholic Right” and the “Catholic Left” on this issue; it was about dividing and conquering. In a deeply cynical move, Obama used Sister Carol Keehan to foment that division; he needed her credibility to reassure the Catholic Left that it could prefer unity with his administration over unity with the church.
His punch was off. Possibly he hadn’t anticipated a block to guard the possession of rights, which are not his to dole out as he sees fit. He seems not to realize, even now–as his administration muddies up the story with talk of costs and savings–that his Catholic allies’ rejection of his HHS Mandate wasn’t about contraception or sterilization, nor could their approval be regained with a skillful uppercut to the men in the miters. What the HHS Mandate has revealed is that the preservation of the freedom of religion–of the churches rights to be who and what they are and to exercise their missions–is worth going to the mat for, no matter which corner you’re coming from.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Correction: The original version of this column said that Doug Kmiec had not yet commented on the new "accommodation." In fact he signed a statement endorsing it on February 10.
USCCB: 6 More Things Everyone Should Know about Mandate
Media Reluctance on Story
Sister Carol Sheehan, CHA "very pleased"
Revised Catholic Charities Statement
Mandate Final Rules Codified (pdf)
Michael Sean Winters, Ambivalence
Cardinal Mahony's remarks
"No more compromise"
The Magical Thinking of "no cost"
Intolerance at the Heart
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