WASHINGTON — After President Obama announced accommodations to the controversial Health and Human Services mandate that stirred a backlash from Catholics, Christians, Orthodox Jews and others, responses rolled in.
They range from caution to rejection.
As the official statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was readied and released, some individual bishops remained studying the government’s “accommodation” before commenting on it, while some began to weigh in on the matter quickly.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput rejected the Obama administration’s attempt to revise its contraception mandate, saying the rule remained “insulting” and “dangerous” to believers’ rights.
“The HHS mandate, including its latest variant, are belligerent, unnecessary and deeply offensive to the content of Catholic belief,” he wrote in a Feb. 12 Philadelphia Inquirer column.
“Any such mandate would make it morally compromising for us to provide health-care benefits to the staffing of our public-service ministries,” Archbishop Chaput said.
Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa, Okla., expressed gratitude that the president began listening to the concerns many had regarding the intrusion on First Amendment rights.
“However, we are dismayed that he does not understand the root issues which are involved here,” Bishop Slattery said, listing three of these issues:
First, no one wants to know why the Catholic Church opposes artificial birth control, direct sterilization and abortifacients.
Second, the government ideology labels these methods “preventive care” and considers pregnancy a disease.
Third, “who ultimately pays for this immoral coverage has remained unanswered by the president,” Bishop Slattery observed.
He also stressed that the U.S. Constitution “does not merely guarantee the freedom of religion to institutions, but to every American.”
Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh expressed a sense of comfort that religious liberty was coming into focus. But then he turned the focus on the need for caution.
“I think in terms of whatever the president is presenting, we have to have guaranteed our religious liberty — that means following the tenets of our particular religion,” Bishop Zubik said. “It’s a point of major concern. We’ve been dealing with a mandate that requires us to go against our conscience — which we can’t ever do.”
“We really do have to be guaranteed our religious liberty,” he concluded. “We’re not going to be forced to do something against our consciences.”
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas responded to the president’s modification of the mandate by saying it “gives a glimmer of hope that the administration is taking seriously the outcry against the infringement upon religious liberty and freedom of conscience created by the HHS mandate.”
Still, the proposed accommodation does not call for any caution flags to be lowered, especially in light of the limited release of what the modifications really entail. Archbishop Naumann did not make light of this aspect.
“As the current crisis has made us painfully aware, the devil is in the details,” he noted. “I have particular concerns about the impact on religious institutions that are self-insured. I also have concern about what relief this modification provides to Catholic business owners who desire to provide high-quality health insurance to their employees without paying for morally objectionable procedures and/or pharmaceuticals. The past actions and promises of the president and his administration do not inspire confidence.”
In his response, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami mentioned that we can appreciate the White House efforts to “quiet the furor” over this mandate that would violate the religious freedom of millions of Catholics and other Americans.
But Archbishop Wenski did not soft-pedal the attempt at accommodation the government made.
“However, it is still not clear whether the proposed ‘compromise’ offered today is acceptable to the bishops and other Catholic leaders,” he stressed. “The devil, as they say, is in the details — and we await more information as to the details. For example, it is not apparent that dioceses that are self-insured would be granted relief by this proposed compromise. …”
“There’s cause to be vigilant and cautious because the concerns and comments given by hundreds of Catholic universities, colleges, hospitals and other bodies given before the mandate was announced were given short shrift by the administration, noted Archbishop Wenski.
There is also the major focus, or lack of it, on the real problem.
“The administration continues to insist that the issue is about contraception; we disagree,” he explained. “It is about the first freedom of our Bill of Rights: the freedom of religion and respect for the rights of conscience.
“The president, in thinking that somehow fertility is a disease and pregnancy a pathology, insists on classifying access to contraception, sterilization and chemical abortions as ‘preventive care.’ In doing so, he is riding rough shod over Americans’ First Amendment rights.”
Archbishop Wenski finds it gratifying that most Americans across party lines and of all faiths and also those of none appreciate this is really about religious freedom. It appears the accommodation is a quick fix that does not address the real problem.
“Despite the apparent willingness of the administration to consider some changes to its announced HHS mandate,” Archbishop Wenski concluded, “a legislative remedy to this overreaching and unprecedented incursion of state power into the domain of religious freedom and the rights of conscience is still necessary.”
Many religious orders run or sponsor apostolates employing laypeople, and thus their insurance programs would be subject to the mandate. One such order is the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, whose superior, Mother Mary Assumpta Long, said in a statement, “These institutions will still have to pay the insurance company that is mandated to provide these services for free to any employee who wants these services.”
“It is insulting for President Obama and his administration to suggest the so-called compromise ‘should be net-cost neutral,’” Mother Assumpta said. “It is simply impossible to ensure that the insurance companies will not pass on those costs to the organizations and individuals who conscientiously object to their insurance policies covering abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and artificial contraception.”
Added Cardinal Roger Mahoney, archbishop emeritus of Los Angelus, on his blog (CardinalRogerMahonyblogsla.blogspot.com) Feb. 11: “Mr. President, you are trying to resolve the wrong problem. Your HHS new federal rule governing mandated health-care services is not just about women’s services and who pays for them.
“Rather, the real question is what protections and guarantees are afforded Americans and our various institutions by the Constitution. Your ill-placed focus should be frightening to all Americans. ...
“Your ‘accommodation’ actually makes the entire matter far worse. Every effort must be undertaken to reverse your ill-conceived revocation of our constitutional rights.
“I encourage all Catholics and millions of others of good will in our country to challenge candidates for election to Congress and to the presidency to take a strong stance in favor of guaranteeing and protecting our nation’s constitutional rights.
“I fear, Mr. President, that you are knowingly and intentionally trampling upon and reversing our constitutional rights.”
Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria, Ill., told Catholic News Agency Feb. 10 that Catholic politicians contribute to attacks like this against the faith, for they “not only do not live their faith, they collaborate in the assault against their faith.”
“Determined secularists see the Catholic Church as the largest institutional block to a completely secularized society, and not for the first, and probably not for the last time, we’re under assault,” he said. “It is always difficult to predict the future, but the intensity of hatred against Catholic Christianity in elements of our culture is just astounding.”
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.