One group of Americans that took a beating in the recent election was the U.S. Catholic bishops. Many of them were not shy in expressing their opposition to the administration and their preference for a Romney presidency. They also fought and lost a series of state referendums on gay marriage.
Some in the Obama administration may feel that the election shows that the bishops can be ignored as leaders without followers. But it would be a mistake to count out an institution that has been around for 2,000 years. In fact, this is a situation where being a gracious victor is not only the right thing to do, it makes good political sense.
I disagree with those who believe that Obama is anti-Catholic or waging a war on religion. After all, his administration has given at least $2 billion to Catholic groups like Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services, a significant increase over the Bush administration. But clearly the bishops and even progressive Catholics are worried about the government putting new conditions on these monies. For example, Health and Human Services decided not to renew its contract with the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services because MRS would not refer trafficked people to contraceptive and abortion services. Some say this was decided by political appointees, even though HHS civil servants recommended renewing the contract.
Since MRS does such a good job with trafficked people, could not HHS find some other way to provide contraceptive and abortion referrals while allowing MRS to continue its work? A little creativity here would respect the bishops’ conscience problems while still achieving the administration’s goals. The administration needs to commit itself to such creativity because although many progressive Catholics are upset with the bishops, these same Catholics love Catholic organizations that serve the poor and marginalized. Any threat to these institutions will upset Catholics, including Hispanics, who supported President Obama’s reelection.
The bishops also objected to HHS mandate that requires employers to provide free contraceptives to their employees through their health insurance policies. The original proposal in January attempted to exempt churches while covering religious hospitals and universities. The February adaptation exempted religious hospitals and universities from paying for contraceptives in their insurance plans but required their insurance companies to provide contraceptives free anyway. The administration argued that the cost would not be passed on to the employer because covering contraceptives is cheaper than paying for births, especially problematic births.
Since the bishops object to the contraceptive mandate for any employer (including Taco Bell), there is nothing that the administration can do to satisfy the bishops completely. But it could adopt the solution proposed by the Catholic Health Association, which wants a complete exemption for religious institutions with the government providing free contraceptives to the institutions’ employees. This solves to conscience problem for Catholic employers while still getting free contraceptives to their employees. It is a win win.
If the administration could not implement such a solution without legislation, then there two minor changes that would deal with at least some of the issues raised by the bishops.
First, the four-part definition of “religious employer,” which was meant to exempt churches, is seriously flawed. It requires that the employer “(1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets;” and 4) be a church as defined in the Internal Revenue Code.
The first three parts of the definition are unnecessary and could pressure Catholic parishes to stop hiring and serving non-Catholics. This presents the image of the pastor turning away non-Catholic homeless people from shelter in the church basement when it is freezing outside. It could also threaten inner-city Catholic parish schools that educate Black students. The IRS has lots of experience distinguishing churches, which are exempt from filing 990 information returns, from other organizations. HHS should not add to the IRS’s definition.
Second, the February adaptation, while exempting hospitals and universities from paying for contraceptive coverage in their insurance policies, requires their insurance provider to give free contraceptives anyway. This might work for normal insurance, but many of these institutions are self-insured. They are the insurance company, so they will still have to pay for contraceptives. HHS hopes to find a solution to this problem, but in the meantime, HHS should simply exempt religious hospitals and universities that are self-insured when the contraceptive mandate goes into effect in August 2013.
Will these changes get the bishops off the administration’s back? No. But they will show that the administration can be gracious in victory and takes seriously the problems faced by Catholic institutions.
Thomas J. Reese is senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. He is the author of a trilogy examining church organization and politics: “Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church” (Harper & Row, 1989), “A Flock of Shepherds: The National Conference of Catholic Bishops” (Sheed & Ward , 1992), and “Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church” (Harvard University Press, 1997).