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The Bishops Assume the Position


The best thing that can be said about "United for Religious Freedom," the new statement from the USCCB's Administrative Committee, is that it's not hysterical. It is, however, uncompromising and disingenuous. Let us count the ways.

1. "This is not about access to contraception, which is ubiquitous and inexpensive, even when it is not provided by the Church’s hand and with the Church’s funds." On the contrary, for those of modest means, the cost of contraception is not inconsequential; denying them coverage can indeed deny them access.

2. "This is not about the Bishops’ somehow “banning contraception,” when the U.S. Supreme Court took that issue off the table two generations ago." Did the U.S. Supreme Court take the issue of abortion off the table as well, so far as the bishops are concerned? I don't think so.

3. "The mandate includes an extremely narrow definition of what HHS deems a “religious employer” deserving exemption—employers who, among other things, must hire and serve primarily those of their own faith." No mention here of the president's accommodation, which would excempt a much wider range of faith-based institutions from the mandate by shifting the burden of coverage to their insurance companies.

4. "The introduction of this unprecedented defining of faith communities and their ministries has precipitated this struggle for religious freedom. Government has no place defining religion and religious ministry." Distinctions about what does and does not constitute a religious institution is a long-standing feature of federal anti-discrimination law. For example, a school must meet certain criteria in terms of religious purpose in order to be able to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds. 

5. "HHS thus creates and enforces a new distinction—alien both to our Catholic tradition and to federal law—between our houses of worship and our great ministries of service to our neighbors, namely, the poor, the homeless, the sick, the students in our schools and universities, and others in need, of any faith community or none." What do you mean by "our," bishops? Most of those great ministries are 501 (c) 3 non-profits with their own boards of trustees, unconnected legally to any part of the Catholic Church and not subject the episcopal rule. That's not to say that many of them are not strongly identified with Catholicism, or that they don't advertise their connection to the faith. But just as the head of the Catholic Hospital Association has embraced the president's accommodation, so many of the "great ministries" may choose to depart from the bishops' campaign against the mandate.

6. "The HHS mandate creates still a third class, those with no conscience protection at all: individuals who, in their daily lives, strive constantly to act in accordance with their faith and moral values." So the bishops are hewing to a right of individual employers to exemptions from health care coverage according to their personal religious lights. If I don't believe in blood transfusions, blood transfusions are out? If I believe God condemns race-mixing, coverage of a spouse of a different race is out? To what degree do the bishops wish to permit conscience to trump laws? What of those fundamentalist Mormons who who are conscientiously obliged to practice plural marriage?

7."United for Religious Freedom." Regardless of how the question is asked, Americans believe that this struggle is not about religious freedom but about contraception. And they're right. If the bishops had gotten the exemption they wanted in the first place, they would not be fighting this fight.

Update: Thoughts on HHS' latest accommodation.

Topics: Politics, Government & Politics
Tags: contraception mandate, usccb


  1. Further, while the cost of contraception is indeed rather high for those not highly paid, it is considerably higher for the female of the species when the male does not like condoms. Female contraception involves a physician appointment periodically, a prescription, and a pharmacy visit. It is clear that those who dismiss the cost concern are thinking in male terms of purchasing condoms. It is also clear that those who dismiss cost concerns are not thinking of other reasons for regulating the monthly cycle, or other reasons altogether for taking hormone pills.

  2. 1. Proof?  Contraception for low and lower-middle income is heavily subsidized by the federal government and most states. 

    2.  Still, your response does negate the bishops’ statement that this debate and their interest in this issue is not about them wanting to ban contraception.  Indeed, the bishops have sometimes opposed tax funding for contraception and the distribution of contraception to minors, but when in the last forty or so years have they advocated banning contraception?

    3. Wrong.  Even if the president’s accommodation would accomplish what you say it would, the legal distinction of what is a “religious employer” will not change.  He is offering to make an accommodation to those faith-based institutions without budging on the definition.

    4. True, but the criteria have never been so narrow.  There must exist some point where the government crosses a line when defining what is religious, otherwise the Free Exercise clause would become meaningless.  Perhaps the bishops would have been more accurate if they had said that the government’s power to define religion and religious ministry is not absolute.

    5. Mere departure does not mean that they are not acting outside of the tradition.  Also, those 501(c) 3s are legally connected under federal tax law.  They gain their tax exemption under the group ruling through the bishops.  Lastly, you ignore the canonical requirements connecting those institutions to the bishops.

    6. Those rights for individuals exist now, or will until the mandate takes effect.  Where are these problems?

    7. Well, it is not “regardless of how the question is asked,” as other polls have shown.  Be that as it may, how people view the matter or frame the matter does not determine what it really is about.

    Indeed, that is essence of legal religious freedom.  The majority does not get to determine what is religious for the minority.

  3. Silk is absolutely wrong when he states:“Most of those great ministries are 501 (c) 3 non-profits with their own boards of trustees, unconnected legally to any part of the Catholic Church and not subject the episcopal rule. “

    Fact:  The VAST majority of those “ministries” which he refers to are listed in the Official Catholic Directory (Kennedy Directory), which extends the USCCB’s 501(c)3 Group Ruling from the IRS directly to them.


  4. I would reiterate what was mentioned above.  Even if ministries are separately incorporated, they are still under the canonical authority of the bishop.  For example, a Catholic high school faculty member must live according to church teaching vis his/her marital status, a Catholic college professor teaching theology must receive a mandatum from the bishop, a Catholic hospital must conduct itself according to Catholic medical ethics.

    Even parishes were, at one point, sometimes owned by the religious order which founded them.  (Mine, for example.)  Even if they were separate under civil law, the parish was most certainly under the authority of the bishop.

    What gets me, however, is the accusation that women would be denied medication for PCOS or endometriosis.  This is just nonsense.  Of course, medical conditions can be treated.  (Just as legitimate medical treatment, such as chemotheraphy or surgery, can render one sterile.)  That is standard Catholic teaching.

    I do wish that the bishops had included this in their defense.

    Someone asked me recently, “What if a woman got her doctor to prescribe the Pill, saying it was for PCOS, not birth control?”  Well, the insurance supplied by her Catholic employer would pay for it.  The bishops aren’t responsible for the duplicity or theft, much like they can’t control an employee who gets blind drunk or buys illegal drugs with the salary they’ve paid.

    All the bishops are saying is “Please don’t make us violate our consciences in this matter.”

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