Catholics United? Take a Closer Look

by Megan Sweas

Since President Barack Obama announced his contraception compromise on Friday, the coalition of religious conservatives that had united against the Health and Human Services mandate to cover contraception has begun to fall apart. Obama said that insurance companies rather than religiously affiliated institutions would be required to cover “objectional services.” Roman Catholic bishops in the U.S. question whether this would actually work, but in rejecting the compromise Friday night, they also called “for the rescission of the mandate altogether.” (Rocco Palmo has a “bulked up” explanation of the bishops' position.)

With the bishops' calling for legislative action to counter the mandate, reporters might want to look closer at Florida Senator Marco Rubio, whose own faith life arguably embodies the conservative Catholic and evangelical unity we've seen so clearly in this issue. According to Mother Jones, his proposed “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” could affect more women than just those employed by religious hospitals and schools.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Health Association as well as liberal Catholic groups, leaders and commentators are urging the bishops to accept the compromise.

Coverage of this unfolding drama in the New York Times has included the various reactions, while a follow-up (with a rather unclear time-line) reported that the focus of the Obama administration's efforts was on the CHA and not the bishops. The Los Angeles Times didn't catch the bishops' message that the compromise was not a “win,” though it took the advice of Maura Jane Farrelly, who wrote on this blog on Thursday that reporters should look to the state level for the full story. Many articles have framed this larger narrative to include same-sex marriage and the question of whether churches must provide benefits or adoption services to gay couples, a development that Farrelly pointed to last December.

But there is also an internal conversation among American Catholics that is worth looking into if reporters want to understand the post-compromise divide. There are a couple of stories from the past few years that can provided deeper context for current conflicts over healthcare.

The first is the debate about the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, in which pro-life activists set up a strict purity test for projects funded by the Catholic Church. Essentially the “Reform CCHD Now” movement argued that an otherwise uncontroversial organization could be disqualified from funding by simply signing on to a campaign with an organization that has a board member who is pro-choice.

The second is the story of Catholic Healthcare West, the country's fifth largest hospital system, which cut its ties with the Catholic Church and became Dignity Healthcare. The contraception mandate has overshadowed this almost completely ignored story. While business priorities may have driven the Dignity Healthcare decision, it's worth exploring what it means for a hospital to be Catholic. The nuns who govern the system seemed confident that they didn't need a connection to the bishops to run an ethical operation. Independence might provide them with greater leeway to provide broader care options. The former Catholic Healthcare West (which does provide contraception coverage) is also the parent company of St. Joseph Hospital in Phoenix, which lost its Catholic status after allowing an abortion to save the life of a mother.

With these stories in mind, opposition to the contraception mandate can be understood not only as a question of religious liberty (an assertion that continues to merit closer scrutiny) but also as an imperative to preserve doctrinal purity in public sphere. While the religious liberty angle may have united conservative and liberal Catholics, conservative evangelicals and the Republican presidential candidates, the purity question helps clarify the more recent split within the Catholic ranks. The folks working in CCHD-funded organizations or in other Catholic hospitals have argued that the messiness of real life means purity is not always possible, or even desirable, in all cases. The compromise offered by the Obama administration might not be perfect, this reasoning goes, but it serves the greater good.

The bishops say they weren't consulted about the “accommodation,” but given their commitment to purity, it's worth asking whether they're truly interested in compromise and, if so, what such a bargain might look like. This question, so far unasked, would help to illuminate important internal debates with the American Catholicism.

Megan Sweas is an Annenberg Fellow studying the intersection of religion and politics in USC's Specialized Journalism program. She previously covered political and social issues as associate editor of U.S. Catholic magazine, where she also managed the website. After graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she spent a volunteer year at Free Spirit Media, a non-profit youth media organization on Chicago's West Side.

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