On Saturday, February 11, longtime advisor Richard Doerflinger apparently decided on behalf of the US Bishops' Conference that the Obama Administration's accommodation regarding the availability of contraceptive coverage in health plans was not acceptable. In an editorial earlier Saturday, the New York Times had referred to conservatives' protests against the rules as a "phony crisis," because there was no intellectually plausible way to link objections to the rules to any infringement on personal religious liberty. Nonetheless, Mr Doerflinger insisted once again that the compromise was "unacceptable and must be corrected" because it still infringed on the religious liberty of Catholics.
There is no mention on the bishops' website of the fact that Church institutions have long paid for contraceptive coverage in at least 28 states, that every church worker in the country has withholding taxes contributed by the Church to support Title X and Medicaid funding for contraceptives, or that there is substantial evidence that contraceptive use both decreases the incidence of abortion and addresses many non-contraceptive medical needs. The selective furor over the contraceptive mandate has simultaneously drowned out any concern that the bishops may have expressed over the ongoing poverty and unemployment crisis in America.
Despite the bishops' opposition, new polling suggested over the weekend that Catholics, and particularly Catholic women, supported the administration's new plan to relieve the bishops of direct responsibility for the availability of contraceptives.
The selective outrage over the birth control mandate appears to be just the latest manifestation of a very calculated opening salvo in the presidential election campaign. An article in Friday's New York Times, by Laurie Goodstein, documented the long preparations that the USCCB had given to their campaign for "religious liberty," long pre-dating the release of the new rules by the Department of Health and Human Services. It had been widely appreciated that the leaders of the Bishops' Conference were planning on picking up on the language of the Republican political manifesto called "The Manhattan Declaration" claiming that the religious liberty of bishops was being infringed because of the movement nationally to legalize same-gender marriage. The birth control controversy appeared to serve as an appropriate excuse to pull the trigger on the campaign, resulting in letters being read on the subject in more than 90% of the dioceses in the United States in recent weeks.
In retrospect, insiders have begun to appreciate that the phony "religious liberty" campaign is an outgrowth of an array of other problems that have face the Church over the past decade. Bishop William Lori, chairman of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, and several other bishops had long argued publicly that the bishops were "under attack" because of a campaign in Connecticut for greater financial transparency in dioceses that were being sued by abuse survivors. Proposed Statute of Limitations legislation that would extend the length of time available to victims to file grievances against the Church also raised Bishop Lori's ire.
"We think there needs to be a legislative fix to protect our religious liberties," Bishop Lori said, sticking to his talking points in a Fox News interview over the weekend. "I think that our First Amendment religious rights are far too precious to be entrusted to regulatory rules."
The "phony crisis" over religious liberty is an insult to the Catholic intellectual tradition--particularly with all the accompanying misinformation stating that the HHS regulations cover "abortifacient drugs." These emergency contraceptives have never been shown to have that affect when taken as prescribed. There was a time when the Catholic bishops would have been embarrassed to have their good name associated with such inflammatory words, particularly when they're coupled with such sloppiness with the facts.