“Hardly surprising, but terribly unfortunate.” 

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan (bottom) has written that America, which is edited by Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen (top), wants bishops to “cave-in". CNS photos

That is how Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, described a March 5 editorial in America Magazine, the national Jesuit weekly publication, that criticized the bishops’ tone and strategy in their opposition to the federal government’s contraceptive coverage mandate. 

Bishop William E. Lori of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the USCCB’s Ad-Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, also penned a letter, which America published online and in print, that suggested the magazine’s editorial board believes the bishops are at their best when they speak in generalities and “go along to get along.” 

“Maybe Moses wasn’t at his best when he confronted Pharaoh. Maybe the Good Shepherd was a bit off his game when he confronted the rulers of his day,” Bishop Lori said. 

The spat between the bishops and America — which has clashed with the hierarchy in previous years for at times publishing articles and opinion pieces critical of Church positions — raises some issues of Catholic unity, as the bishops press their religious liberty campaign while dealing with divergent voices that some believe undermine the bishops and enable government authorities to ignore them. 

‘Political pragmatics’

However, the recent clash may also underscore limits in the bishops’ authority in that while they are the authoritative teachers of Catholic doctrine in their respective dioceses, their prudential judgments over political strategy and policy decisions are not necessarily binding on the faithful. 

“When a magazine like America suggests that (the bishops) may be overstepping their bounds in their religious liberty arguments, that has nothing to do with doctrine or unity, but political pragmatics,” said Terrence W. Tilley, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution in New York City. 

“The bishops, as authoritative teachers of the faith, may want all Catholic voices to support them politically. However they cannot, I think, expect everybody to support their political strategies,” Tilley told Our Sunday Visitor.

Editorial’s standpoint

Led by Cardinal Dolan, the USCCB is steadfast in its opposition to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requirement that all employer-provided health insurance plans cover, without deductibles or co-pays, all government-approved forms of birth control, including abortion-inducing emergency contraception. 

The bishops reject President Barack Obama’s proposed accommodation, which he announced Feb. 10, that requires health insurance companies to reach out and offer free contraceptive coverage for employees at religiously affiliated institutions. 

The president unveiled the revised policy after weeks of mounting pressure from the bishops and their allies. America Magazine also editorialized on Feb. 13 that the mandate’s religious employer exemption needed to be expanded. 

The president said his tweaked policy shielded religious employers from directly paying for reproductive services, but the bishops’ conference rejected the accommodation, arguing the policy did not exempt religious insurance companies and self-insuring religious employers, and that it still fails to protect the conscience rights of religious and secular businesses and nonprofits, including individuals. 

The only solution, the bishops suggest, is the mandate to be rescinded. 

America Magazine says the bishops conference is overreaching. The bishops, the magazine’s editorial board said, devalue the principle of religious freedom by equating it with a demand that contraception — which is accepted by other religions and Christian denominations, including most Catholics — not be covered in employer insurance plans. 

The magazine said the president’s accommodation, though imperfect, fulfilled a Catholic social teaching principle that governments should coordinate contending right claims while preserving the common good. In threatening lawsuits and demanding legislation, the bishops are striking an overtly political posture that most Americans are uncomfortable seeing from the hierarchy, the magazine said. 

Not simply a policy issue

However, Christopher Malloy, associate professor of theology at the University of Dallas, told OSV that America was misleading readers in framing the issue as a policy matter in which Catholics can validly disagree. 

“What’s at stake here is a mandate that people who provide health insurance coverage must supply these kind of resources that are opposed to human dignity,” Malloy said. 

“It’s not a policy issue. The mandate still stands. There was no accommodation here,” said Malloy, who added that the bishops have been “long-suffering” at the hands of America Magazine. 

The Cardinal Newman Society said America’s editors were “sounding the trumpets of retreat” in the battle for religious liberty and “bravely galloping away to watch from the sidelines.” 

In a March 2 letter to the country’s bishops, Cardinal Dolan warned his brother bishops to prepare for a tough time, and added that “some, like America Magazine, want us to cave-in and stop fighting, saying this is simply a policy issue.” 

Forum for discussion

Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, editor of America Magazine, told OSV that the magazine takes seriously the bishops’ views, and that the publication has published articles specifically proposed by the USCCB. 

“As a magazine, we’re called to be a forum of discussion among different groups within the Church,” said Father Christiansen, who added that America solicits the bishops for articles, and that the magazine has had inclusive conversations about running a forum on religious liberty across the country in conjunction with the bishops’ conference. America’s editorial board also consulted outside voices, including some bishops, before publishing the March 5 editorial, Father Christiansen said. 

However, thinking with the Church does not mean doing propaganda for the Church, said Father Christiansen, who added that he was disappointed by the bishops’ “strong reaction” to the editorial. 

“I think (the bishops’) responses were quick,” he said. “We’d certainly like to chat with them.” 

Father Christiansen added America has extensively covered the religious issue during his tenure as editor. He said the publication has collaborated with the bishops on the issue, but the editorial board had also earlier signaled its concern that a broad campaign under the religious liberty banner could be subject to abuse and becoming politicized. 

“The issue is how you approach the question,” said Father Christiansen, who mentioned the principle of presuppositio, which seeks to not presume bad faith, places the best interpretation on someone’s position and tries to exhaust all avenues before condemning an adversary. 

“Are you leaving the door open for dialogue, or is your approach closing doors?” said Father Christiansen. 

Fordham’s Tilley said America Magazine did not editorialize on doctrinal matters, or undermine Catholic unity. 

“Just because there is unity in doctrine, which must always be preserved, that does not say that there can’t be significant differences in pursuing political agendas,” Tilley said. 

Authoritative voices

In his editorial, Bishop Lori said the bishops were right to question why religious liberty was being compromised by a claim to services that regard pregnancy and fertility as diseases. 

“If the (March 5) editorial is to be believed, bishops should regard it not as a matter of religious liberty but merely policy that, as providers they teach one thing but as employers they are made to teach something else,” Bishop Lori said. 

Malloy said the bishops are the authoritative voices able to teach and defend the Catholic faith. 

“The bishops have the moral authority,” he said. “Obama’s team brought the fight to the bishops with this. The bishops are not causing rancor when they fight the wolves to protect the flock.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Texas.