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USCCB president answers question about compromise, but stays his ground on insurance-coverage controversy.
BY PETE SHEEHAN
Hicksville, N.Y. — Obama administration regulations requiring Church institutions to pay for employee contraceptive coverage represent “an unwarranted, unprecedented intrusion” into the ministry of the Church, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York stated during an address in Hicksville, New York.
Cardinal Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, addressed the threat posed by the federal contraception mandate during a conference on Catholic public policy March 3.
Speaking at Holy Trinity High School, based in the Rockville Centre Diocese, the cardinal made a point of rebutting media reports that he was coming to speak about the controversial new federal rule requiring virtually all private employers — including religious institutions — to provide co-pay-free contraception services in their health plans. Still, in the context of Catholics making an impact on public policy, he had much to say about the issue. The cardinal and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre afterwards also spoke to reporters, all of whom asked about the HHS controversy.
When the Obama administration announced the contraception mandate last August, the U.S. bishops attacked the narrow religious exemption that excluded most church-affiliated social agencies, hospitals and universities. During his appearance at the Hicksville conference, Cardinal Dolan noted that the First Amendment protects “freedom of religion” to practice one’s faith without interference from the government, not merely “freedom of worship.” In theory, he said, “there is freedom of worship in China,” where believers can go to church but cannot practice their faith the rest of the week.
Accusations that the Church is trying to impose peculiar Catholic teachings are “baloney,” said Cardinal Dolan. “You could say that if we were trying to pass a law that would make it illegal to sell hot dogs on Fridays during Lent,” but not on the positions that the Church has taken. “Catholics ought to propose, not impose,” he said, making the case in terms of natural law for the good of society.
Rather than trying to impose its morality, the Church is saying: “Don’t impose your morality on us,” the cardinal said, drawing applause from the audience.
President Obama’s proposed modification of the mandate, said the cardinal would not exempt religious employers that objected to contraception, but would merely pass the burden and cost of covering contraceptives to the insurer.
“This really didn’t accomplish much,” Cardinal Dolan said, because it still philosophically defined that church ministry constituted practice of religion and also because among Catholic institutions in New York “most of us are self-insured.” Consequently, passing the cost to the insurer would still be burdening the Church.
Asked about the U.S. Senate’s 51-48 vote March 1 to table the bipartisan Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, the cardinal said “We were a little disappointed but not surprised.” Sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the measure sought to protect employer conscience rights. The cardinal added that the bishops are hopeful that the Senate might revisit the issue and the House of Representatives will pass a similar measure.
In response to a question from a reporter, Cardinal Dolan acknowledged that the bishops are looking into legal action. He said the conference would accept assistance offered by constitutional scholars, legal experts and others concerned about religious freedom.
Asked about the possibility of compromise, Cardinal Dolan noted that “you can’t compromise on principle,” though compromise on policy is permitted.
The compromise would be for the Obama administration to broaden its religious exemption to allow church institutions and individuals to practice their religion, but keep the mandate for everyone else, the cardinal said. “The Church would still oppose the mandate of contraceptive coverage, but the concern would be “less urgent.”
When asked about the suggestion that the bishops listen to “more liberal” Church members who either don’t oppose contraception or don’t believe in defying the HHS regulations, he said that the key issue is not the opinions of the Catholic people, but what the Church teaches and whether the Church will be compelled to act against its own teaching.
He encouraged Catholicsto take action too: “It is a freedom of religion battle. It is not about contraception. It is not about women’s health. We’re talking about an unwarranted, unprecedented, radical intrusion” on “a church’s ability to teach, serve and sanctify on its own.”
“We got our Irish up a little when leaders in government seemed to be assigning an authoritative voice to Catholic groups that are not the bishops,” Cardinal Dolan said. “If you want an authoritative voice, go to the bishops.”
Register correspondent Pete Sheehan writes from Rockville Centre, New York.