This month, the head of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty committee said the bishops have not given up hope of progress in talks with the White House over its threatened abortifacient/sterilization/contraception mandate for virtually all employers, including those with moral objections to the procedures. 

Catholics need not only to unite but also to build a broad coalition of support, including in public opinion — an especially powerful force during an election year.

But things are looking grim. The committee chair, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., told Religion News Service that Church leaders “have gotten mixed signals from the administration” and said the “hardest thing” was the White House “deals with us in a segmented way” — which is a gentle way of saying that the Obama administration is exploiting long-standing divisions in the Catholic community and sidelining the bishops themselves. 

“There ought to be an attempt to have an inclusive conversation with the Catholic Church,” Bishop Lori said, “and not a segmented one. And I think that is in part why we are in a fairly unhappy spot right now.” 

A blunter tone was struck in a letter to the U.S. bishops this month by the president of the bishops’ conference, New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan. 

He said White House officials had told conference staffers that broader concerns of religious liberty were “off the table” and that the bishops should “listen to the ‘enlightened’ voices of accommodation.” 

“The White House seems to think we bishops simply do not know or understand Catholic teaching,” Cardinal Dolan wrote, “and so, taking a cue from its own definition of religious freedom, now has nominated its own handpicked official Catholic teachers.” 

For the bishops to have any hope of making headway with the White House on protecting religious freedom rights for Catholic institutions and individuals, however, Catholics must demonstrate a united front. Unfortunately, after a brief period of unity on this issue across a broad spectrum of Catholics, there are already signs of renewed fragmentation (see News Analysis, Page 4). Further, Catholics need to build a broad coalition of support, including in public opinion — an especially powerful force during an election year. 

Incidents like conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh’s despicable and degrading taunting of a young advocate of the contraception mandate have destroyed no small part of the good public will behind the cause, and shifted the focus away from the religious freedom issue. In turn, they even may make some lawmakers wary about supporting legislation to defend religious liberty, for fear of appearing to their constituents as sympathetic to misogynists and bullies. 

Bishop Lori acknowledges that each and every step the bishops’ conference has taken in defense of religious liberty has not been perfect. But to our mind there is no other institution doing such far-reaching work in awakening consciences not just among Catholics but also in the broader American society to the importance of the First Amendment, to the centrality of religious freedom to respect for human dignity, and to the very inviolability of conscience itself. 

Even if the bishops’ efforts with the White House and Congress fail, some legal experts hold out hope that the Supreme Court will offer relief. 

But until then, Catholics should unite with the bishops in testifying in the court of public opinion that it is indeed possible to support religious freedom as well as broader access to health care for all Americans.

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