Thursday, February 09, 2012

O what a paradise it seems! Again.

It is interesting how much of a role religion is suddenly playing in American political life.

Orrin Hatch is upset that President Obama dared mention the obligations of being one's brother's keeper in the same context as our federal tax structure. Separation of church and state apparently demands that compassion for the last and least among us be kept very clear of any idea about a progressive tax system. Rick Santorum thinks not leaving his faith at the door means drug companies should make as much money as possible, because otherwise sick people would just buy extra iPads. And while we don't have an aristocracy in America, the "old boys club" of D. C. is very concerned about the hurt feelings of the princes of the Church.

The Bishops of the Roman Catholic church are upset that the Obama Administration is going to require all institutions, religiously affiliated or not, to abide by the same rules when it comes to health insurance for employees. The fact that this is already a requirement in 28 states does not blunt their outrage. To quote Cardinal John Ratzinger: "Standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the Church." Or, if you want something more recent:

In a interview with Connecticut magazine published on the magazine’s Web site last week, a surprisingly frank Cardinal Egan said of the apology, “I never should have said that,” and added, “I don’t think we did anything wrong.”

He said many more things in the interview, some of them seemingly at odds with the facts. He repeatedly denied that any sex abuse had occurred on his watch in Bridgeport. He said that even now, the church in Connecticut had no obligation to report sexual abuse accusations to the authorities. (A law on the books since the 1970s says otherwise.) And he described the Bridgeport diocese’s handling of sex-abuse cases as “incredibly good.”*
That is the Bishops' story, and they're sticking to it.

And their defenders eventually fall back (I've heard it twice now; a patch of ice doth not a winter make, but the irony that the argument is being made at all is keen, indeed) on the argument that employees don't have to work for employers like religiously affiliated institutions. Which is the same argument once used against the Civil Rights Act of 1964: after all, blacks don't have to eat at restaurants that won't serve them, or hotels that won't house them. The market will provide them with alternatives (and yes, this is a Title VII issue,).

Granted, that last line is a modern one. There wasn't much talk of "market alternatives" in 1964, because everybody knew they didn't exist. But the argument that someone doesn't have to patronize a place of business, or seek employment there, is as old as the civil rights struggle itself.

And I have heard, again twice now, that the Hosanna-Tabor decision means the Supreme Court agrees that the Obama administration is wrong on this one. I've decided anyone who makes that argument (and it's been made in conjunction with the "they don't have to work there" argument every time I've heard it raised) is not credible, because the Supreme Court did nothing more than recognize an exception to Title VII that has been used for 40 years now, and doesn't apply to non-clergy staff in religiously affiliated institutions.

What is being insisted upon is not religious liberty or even 1st Amendment rights. What is being insisted upon is a principle of power. Rick Santorum wants the power to ignore the poor, and even to demonize them. Orrin Hatch wants the power to direct tax policy without any messy moral considerations. The RC Bishops want the power to do as they please in the 22 states where they can still do that. Anthony Picarello, general counsel to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, even argued that the problem with this new rule is that it's from the federal government, as if the only issue was that now, there's no escaping it at all. It isn't a moral issue, and it isn't a religious issue: it's a power issue. The Roman Catholic church has to conform to the law in 28 states; the Bishops don't want that rule extended to all 50, because...well, because they don't want to comply with it if they don't have to. Have they suffered in those other 28 states, or removed their presence there? Apparently not. Have they campaigned relentlessly to have the law overturned in those 28 states? Apparently not. So the moral issue is not the absolute here; it's the issue of a shift in power. What they don't want to give up, is any more power. They've lost this debate in 28 states; they don't want to lose it in the other 22.

As Sarah Lipton-Lubet of the ACLU points out: "There is a whole host of anti-discrimination and labor laws that institutions that operate in the public sphere like religiously affiliated hospitals and universities comply with, or are supposed to comply with." Tell me again how this one new rule is any different, or any more of an imposition on their principles, than any other.

Charles Pierce likes to point out that, if the Bishops don't like this rule, they can abandon the tax-free status of their institutions and keep their principles intact. Which is more important to them? If they don't get their way, and if they don't abandon their tax exempt status, we'll have our answer.


I had to read this more than a few times before I finally realized what it said:

That was no consolation to Catholic leaders. The White House is "all talk, no action" on moving toward compromise, said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "There has been a lot of talk in the last couple days about compromise, but it sounds to us like a way to turn down the heat, to placate people without doing anything in particular," Picarello said. "We're not going to do anything until this is fixed."

That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for "good Catholic business people who can't in good conscience cooperate with this."

"If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by the mandate," Picarello said.
In other words: repeal Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, because forcing a Catholic to comply with any provision that might conflict with the doctrines of the Church, should be verboten.

I'll retire to Bedlam....

*Apropos of this hot-button issue, one should not make the mistake of thinking that the Roman Catholic Church is monolithic, even within its own hierarchy. The Vatican has told the Bishops it considers the reporting of crimes fundamental to their role as Bishops. So not everyone agrees with Cardinal Egan (who, being retired, may not be affected by this, either).


  1. Anonymous5:27 AM

    The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has been a thoroughly politicized organization for most of the past 20 years and, no surprise considering who has been appointing them, they are a Republican pressure group. That was always true to some extent in the past, as Jack Kennedy said, the bishops voted Republican but the nuns voted Democratic and there were more nuns. Catholics have generally tended more towards being Democrats, especially when they were more working class than upwardly mobile.

    Which doesn't fit into the typical blog narrative which is about as informed as your typical anti-Catholic pamphlet of the 19th century.

    The Catholic Church is changing drastically, into an entrenched establishment of unmarried male power holders, with no real inclinations to act pastorally and a laity that is unserved and which, I expect, will tend to go elsewhere. The bishop here has sold off the one and only church in our town and is putting up a new one (at far more expense than keeping the old ones) two towns away. Breaking many hearts, my very old mother among them. No matter that the church was paid for and serving a growing congregation of working class people that more than supported its operation. There aren't priests enough and, I've got no doubt, somewhere in the deal they got money to pay off their some of their costs for the pedophile priest cases they've lost or had to settle.

    All of that leaves the tiny group of unmarried men who rule the church with absolute power with little time to think about the other things. They certainly don't much "remember the poor" these days. They don't deserve a lot of respect, they certainly have earned more skepticism about their motives than respect for their moral authority.

    Anthony McCarthy

  2. Rmj, thank you. I've said what you say here about the health insurance rules over and over, and it's good to have you take your turn. How do the RC bishops square with their consciences the provision of contraceptives in the 28 states that mandate coverage? However the bishops do it, apply the same principles to the remaining 22 states.

    No, the bishops prefer a dramatic political power play, which includes accusations that the Obama administration is waging war on Roman Catholics. I recommend that the bishops visit their fellow Christians in countries in the Middle East where real persecution takes place, and they might stop their pathetic braying. The bishops and their true-believing followers generate more heat and noise than their true numbers warrant. What they are doing is shameful.

  3. I can hardly imagine a more unfortunate situation, and one that better illustrates this country's poisonous electoral politics.

    The Catholic bishops have been lobbying for universal healthcare for a long, long time. They would have been valuable allies. But anyone with any political sense would have known that (1) for the Catholic Church, contraception, sterilization, and abortion are not health care, and that (2) such things could still be, effectively, universally provided for with alternative mechanisms that would not require direct subsidization.

    I had really expected, a few weeks ago, when it was announced that a "grace period" of a year had been instituted, that that would have plainly allowed such a compromise, after the election, when the president was not needing to protect his left flank. Now, I'm not so sure.

    Another irony is that the existing exemption's scope is based on the notion that education, health care, hospice care, and other charities are not "religious" in nature. Plainly, if the Church didn't have such an extensive network of schools and hospitals, if it confined itself to worship, these issues wouldn't arise.

    I will continue to support President Obama, and will probably work for his re-election this fall, partly because he is miles ahead of any possible opposition candidate in so many ways, partly because he is an intelligent moderate who will, I think, find a way to keep from enforcing a law that mandates direct financial support of what Vatican II called an "abominable crime." I don't know whether such accomodation might be required under the rubric of "free exercise of religion." But it's a shame to have to have recourse to constitutional provisions when conflicts like this one can in all likelihood be resolved through a little creative re-structuring and respect for deep-seated convictions.

  4. Depends on whose "deep-seated convictions" are involved, methinks.

    To quote Antonin Scalia in a case involving the question of peyote use as a religious observance:

    “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

    And it wasn't the US Conference of Catholic Bishops who supported the Affordable Health Care Act; that was the nuns, who openly broke with the Bishops, on pretty much this issue (although ins. is not required to cover abortions in this case, at least not that I've heard.) over the issue.

    I give the Bishops points for consistency. But their morality is a bit threadbare, as it rests on maintaining their tax exempt status. If they give that up, I'll know they are serious. I also wonder why they haven't given it up in the 28 states where this kind of coverage is already required, or haven't given it up at DePaul University.

    Lots of holes in the consistency of the Bishop's position, actually.

    for the Catholic Church, contraception, sterilization, and abortion are not health care,

    Aye, but here's the problem: for some churches, women are not fit to be in positions of leadership. Does this mean such institutions as those religions support can discriminate against women? Can they refuse to hire Jews as janitors? Mormons once held that blacks bore the "Mark of Cain". Could they deny blacks employment at a Mormon college or hospital? This rule does not require Catholic hospitals to so much as perform in vitro fertilization (I know of a Catholic supported hospital in Austin that wouldn't allow the practice there). That's fine; this rule does not change that. What it does change is to require them to provide insurance for non-Catholic lay employees to have coverage for contraception and perhaps abortion (of course, try getting one in this country. Abortion clinics are as rare as hen's teeth.). Or even Catholic employees, since statistics say that a majority of Catholics use contraception, too. What is the difference between paying for insurance that covers contraception and paying taxes to support war, which should be as equally abominable as contraception (one would think, anyway)?

    No offense, old friend, but I find the attempts to slice this issue so thinly that it has only one side rather poor examples of moral reasoning, indeed.

  5. One other point I feel cruelly compelled to make: this rule, in essence, goes back to 2000:

    "We have used [the EEOC ruling] many times in negotiating with various employers," says Judy Waxman, the vice president for health and reproductive rights at the National Women's Law Center. "It has been in active use all this time. [President Obama's] policy is only new in the sense that it covers employers with less than 15 employees and with no copay for the individual. The basic rule has been in place since 2000."

    The Bishops' sudden sanctimony does not impress.

  6. I don't see how the bishops' sactimony enters into the question. There is much to criticise in their behavior. But underneath it all, there is a serious issue, and it's a shame that it won't be seriously considered in our system outside of a lawsuit.

    If we were reading about some medieval Spanish king who decreed that the synagogues in his realm had to raise pigs and promote pork in the diet, we would shake our heads at his awful intolerance. But I don't think we are, fundamentally, any more enlightened.

  7. But underneath it all, there is a serious issue, and it's a shame that it won't be seriously considered in our system outside of a lawsuit.

    A "serious issue" that's been around for 12 years. And now the Bishops have decided it is unacceptable?

    What changed?

    I am back to my original point: this isn't a moral issue for the Bishops, it's a power issue. They opposed the Affordable Healthcare Act, and now they find this 12 year old standard unacceptable. Why? Because of their morality? Or because of their own interests in who makes the rules?

    As for the serious issue, I have a separate post on that pending. I'll be curious to hear your response (it will be up later tonight).

  8. Well, I wasn't going to post it, but the situation is changing so rapidly this morning....

  9. "this isn't a moral issue for the Bishops, it's a power issue."

    Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. Maybe it's a power issue for the president. That's what they always say on the right wing blogs.

    Human motivations are always mixed. One whose motivations are pure as snow may be wrong. Macchiavelli may be right. But, ultimately, we can't see into each others' hearts, or know fully our allies' or our opponents' motivations. I will therefore assume that the president and the bishops are in good faith. If I do otherwise, I obscure the issue at stake with an ad hominum.

  10. I would never doubt that any President acts from motivations that involve the exercise of power. Nor would I doubt that the Bishops are doing the same.

    And I based that, not on the need to read their hearts, but on their actions. After all, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I have no problem describing it as a duck.

    As I said in the new post above, the Bishops have moved on to describe almost any participation in health insurance as "intrinsically immoral." That's not exactly a purely ethical argument, methinks. It can be critiqued on the grounds of the effort as well as on the grounds of the reasoning employed.

    And besides, this rule is 12 years old. Why are they complaining now? Because eliminating a copay is a moral issue? Because applying this rule to employers of less than 15 people violates fundamental Christian ethics?


  11. It looks to me now like the president is offering a reasonable accomodation, which I hope puts most of the sound and fury to rest.

    Much of the media is running it as "Obama Caves"--as if compromise and diplomacy were signs of weakness instead of strength. The Daily Beast is saying that the whole thing was a clever ploy by the president to punk the Republicans on contraception. Could be, I suppose.

    Some of the bishops who wanted a confrontation may still be in defiance-mode, and their continuing statements will undoubtedly continue to sell newspapers, but I'm not sure what they've got left to be defiant about. The cloister is always there for those wishing to get as far away as possible from the wickedness of the world (I don't mean that in any way ironically).

    (Meanwhile the pope, the wicked old German socialist, is on his way to Cuba next month.)

    Hope I haven't put out the "Mission Accomplished" banners too soon. But the heat-to-light ratio of this thing seems to me to have been off the charts (probably for myself as well).

    Understand your point, of course, about the bishops being shocked, shocked, to find gambling going on in Rick's place. But for how many centuries did imperial and royal authority encroach upon Church autonomy before Gregory began to push back? And was he wrong to do so?