The first public sign of the internal split came on Tuesday (May 22), a day after 43 Catholic dioceses, universities and other church institutions filed a dozen lawsuits around the country seeking to overturn a policy from the Department of Health and Human Services that requires employers or their insurance companies to provide free contraceptive coverage to employees.
In an interview with America magazine, a national weekly published by the Jesuits, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., warned that “there is a concern among some bishops that there ought to have been more of a wider consultation” regarding overall strategy before such aggressive legal action was taken.
Blaire, a leading spokesman on social justice issues as head of the domestic policy committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, worried that the confrontational approach taken by the bishops was being exploited by political groups “very far to the right” who are trying to use the conflict with the White House as “an anti-Obama campaign.”
“I think there are different groups that are trying to co-opt this and make it into political issue, and that’s why we need to have a deeper discussion as bishops,” said Blaire, who reiterated that he opposes the contraception mandate and fully supported efforts to defend the church’s religious liberty.
The entire U.S. hierarchy is to meet in Atlanta in June for its annual spring meeting, and Blaire and others have suggested the lawsuits could have waited until after that meeting.
Blaire cited a number of other concerns about the legal strategy, including that plaintiffs could lose. That already happened in 2004, when the California Supreme Court upheld a mandate much like the one proposed by Obama’s HHS. If the current plaintiffs lose in a federal case before the U.S. Supreme Court, that could enshrine the principal they oppose as a judicial precedent.
Another problem noted by Blaire, and one that several bishops have privately lamented, is that different bishops and conservative activists are citing different rationales for opposing the mandate: some see the fight as a defense of religious freedom, others say it is about protecting individual consciences, and still others object to the mandate as promoting birth control and sexual license.
Some of those claims are weaker than others, and Blaire said some could feed into the “war on women” meme. He also said they might detract from ongoing efforts to craft an acceptable accommodation with the White House, but above all they represent a failure by the bishops to act in unison to achieve an agreed upon goal.