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Writing at the Weekly Standard, Phillip Muñoz argues for the merits of the recent statement on religious freedom by the Catholic bishops:

The Obama administration was not against an exemption per se, it just wanted a narrow one that only covered church employees serving members of their own faith with jobs pertaining to the inculcation of religious belief. The Catholic bishops, it seemed, wanted a more robust exemption that covered institutions of faith, including hospitals, universities, and other social service providers.

Now the bishops have made clear that the contraception mandate must be rescinded, because, in their view, even a more expansive exemption cannot sufficiently protect religious freedom.

The bishops did not have to take this route, but all those who cherish religious liberty should be glad they did. If the bishops settled for a more expansive accommodation, they might have been able to get an exemption for their hospitals and universities (including my own, Notre Dame). That would have been the easy way to “preserve” religious liberty while also retaining the mandate.

But what, then, would the bishops have said to business owners who likely would not have been covered by a more expansive exemption? How could church leaders say that it’s wrong for church institutions to pay for contraception and abortifacients, but that Catholic business owners must cover these costs?

The exemption approach might have allowed the bishops to secure religious liberty for their institutions, but not for all their followers. That would have been a failure of moral authority and political strength to protect the common good.

Commonweal  magazine has criticized the recent statement on religious liberty by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a seemingly partisan document that makes the bishops ”sound more like politicians than pastors.” The Commonweal piece skirts around the substance of the matter, talking about the optics of the bishops’ statement rather than its actual merits, concluding that ”if religious freedom becomes a partisan issue, its future is sure to grow dimmer.” I certainly agree with the latter statement, but the editors fail to acknowledge that it was the Obama administration that made this a partisan issue in the first place through its steamrolling of the conscience objections held not just by the bishops but by many American Catholics and other Christians.

If one wants to obsess over optics, one obvious way to make the bishops’ effort “seem” less partisan would be for it to receive a vocal defense from a magazine closely identified with the Democratic party. A magazine, well, like Commonweal . Alas, I don’t think the editors’ commitment to non-partisanship extends quite that far.

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