In recent months Catholic leaders have shown a remarkably united front on the issue of religious freedom, and in opposing the threat to it posed by some proposed changes in federal health care policy.
At this point, President Barack Obama and his team can have very little doubt about the outrage Catholics feel at being forced to pay for chemical abortions, sterilizations and other acts they consider — with good reason and with the weight of history and the best thought of civilization throughout the centuries — deeply immoral.
What is immediately at issue here is not, the president has heard, whether abortion or contraception or sterilization should be permitted in our pluralistic society; the issue is whether the federal government — in violation of consciences and the very founding principles of the United States of America — should be allowed to coerce Americans with moral objections to fund them.
So far, the White House has yet to commit to offering an exemption to Catholic and other religious institutions affected by the proposed contraception/sterilization/chemical abortion requirement.
“You can be sure that we want to strike the right balance between expanding coverage of preventive services and respecting religious beliefs,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a recent press briefing. “And that’s the balance that will be sought as this decision is made.”
Predictably, there are a host of pro-choice lawmakers, lobbyists and activists who are pressuring the White House to discount the conscience rights concerns. They consider it one of their stronger arguments that many Catholics ignore Church teaching on contraception. And Catholic institutions, too; according to recent story on National Public Radio, “while some religious employers take advantage of loopholes or religious exemptions, the fact remains that dozens of Catholic hospitals and universities currently offer contraceptive coverage as part of their health insurance packages.”
That disunity is a real scandal, and unquestionably weakens the Catholic case for conscience.
On the other hand, though, President Obama would do better to take note of the fact that he no longer enjoys the confidence of some of those prominent Catholic leaders who were willing to give him a chance when they supported the passing of his health care reform bill. There is a sense, wrote Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski in a recent op-ed in the Miami Herald, that Obama has “played” his early Catholic supporters.
In fact, Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins and Catholic Health Association President Sister Carol Keehan, a decisive supporter of the health care reform bill, have decried the lack of conscience protection in the proposed policies.
At times, the president has seemed to “get it.” In his 2009 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame he pledged “to honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion” and to craft “sensible” conscience protections. A few months later, in a roundtable meeting with Catholic periodical editors, the president repeated his assurance that “there will be a robust conscience clause in place” at least as strong as that under his predecessor, President George W. Bush.
Our hope is that Catholics will continue to press the Obama administration to do the right thing by reversing the proposed regulations and providing the conscience protections Church leaders are calling for — and that he himself committed to.