The Catholic Church in the United States, after a brief show of unity in the face of astoundingly aggressive new federal regulations that in effect punish adherence to Church teaching, has splintered back into a factionalism that is all too familiar. President Barack Obama’s sudden “accommodation” in response to weeks of pressure from a broad spectrum of conservative and progressive co-religionists effectively has split Catholics back into opposing, recriminatory camps. 

The U.S. bishops are caught between those Catholics who are obtusely benign and those who are obtusely paranoid.

And once again, the bishops’ authority as leaders of the Catholic community has taken a hammering. 

Part of the reason is certainly that the bishops’ ability to communicate quickly and clearly on important issues simply cannot compete with the heavily moneyed Washington lobbies and the political resources of the White House.  

But a more disturbing reason is that fewer Catholic groups and factions are looking to the bishops for leadership at all — and end up muddying the Catholic message, stepping on each other’s toes, and ignoring the wider implications of their go-your-own-way strategies.  

The most egregious in this case is the Catholic Health Association (CHA), which claims to represent some 600 Catholic hospitals and health facilities across the country. In the same hour that President Obama announced a still-murky “compromise” on his administration’s requirement that all employers — including Catholics and others with grave moral objections — provide free contraception, sterilization and abortion-producing drugs to their employees, the White House emailed reporters a press release from CHA’s president, Sister Carol Keehan, describing her as “very pleased” and “grateful” that “a resolution has been reached.” 

The Keehan statement threw the rest of the Catholic community under the bus, ignoring the many concerns of Catholic groups other than hospitals. 

It took the U.S. bishops’ conference a few more hours to release an initial, cautious press release welcoming Obama’s apparent willingness to respect religious rights concerns but withholding judgment on the details pending further study. Later that day, the conference issued a second statement calling the Obama compromise morally unacceptable, and appealing for complete rescission of the reproductive “preventive services” mandate. 

By then, though, the damage to Catholic unity had been done. Because of CHA’s hasty rush to benign judgment even in the face of obvious questions, the dominant media narrative became “Catholic leaders divided on compromise.” (Tragically, CHA seems to have realized this itself, but too late. A little-noticed press release went up on its website three days later acknowledging “there are many unanswered questions about specifics” and pledging a thorough review.) 

New York Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, later said he was “disappointed that [Sister Keehan] had acted unilaterally, not in concert with the bishops.” He said her member organizations’ economic and political pressures made it “tough for her to stand firm.” 

But if CHA acted in way that was obtusely benign, other Catholic organizations have helped undercut the bishops by trumpeting obtusely paranoid diatribes (usually in breathless fundraising appeals) in ways that would leave the recipient believing that Obama stormtroopers were poised to break into Catholic churches. This blunts the bishops’ efforts to be firm and yet thoughtful and thorough in their opposition. 

The stakes are too grave for the divisive behavior we are now witnessing.

Editorial board: Greg Erlandson; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.