Should Obama reach out to the Catholic bishops?

AP President Obama pauses as he speaks at the election night partyin Chicago on Nov. 7, 2012. One group of … Continued


President Obama pauses as he speaks at the election night partyin Chicago on Nov. 7, 2012.

One group of Americans that took a beating in the recent election was the U.S. Catholic bishops. Many of them were not shy in expressing their opposition to the administration and their preference for a Romney presidency. They also fought and lost a series of state referendums on gay marriage.

Some in the Obama administration may feel that the election shows that the bishops can be ignored as leaders without followers. But it would be a mistake to count out an institution that has been around for 2,000 years. In fact, this is a situation where being a gracious victor is not only the right thing to do, it makes good political sense.

I disagree with those who believe that Obama is anti-Catholic or waging a war on religion. After all, his administration has given at least $2 billion to Catholic groups like Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services, a significant increase over the Bush administration. But clearly the bishops and even progressive Catholics are worried about the government putting new conditions on these monies. For example, Health and Human Services decided not to renew its contract with the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services because MRS would not refer trafficked people to contraceptive and abortion services. Some say this was decided by political appointees, even though HHS civil servants recommended renewing the contract.

Since MRS does such a good job with trafficked people, could not HHS find some other way to provide contraceptive and abortion referrals while allowing MRS to continue its work? A little creativity here would respect the bishops’ conscience problems while still achieving the administration’s goals. The administration needs to commit itself to such creativity because although many progressive Catholics are upset with the bishops, these same Catholics love Catholic organizations that serve the poor and marginalized. Any threat to these institutions will upset Catholics, including Hispanics, who supported President Obama’s reelection.

The bishops also objected to HHS mandate that requires employers to provide free contraceptives to their employees through their health insurance policies. The original proposal in January attempted to exempt churches while covering religious hospitals and universities. The February adaptation exempted religious hospitals and universities from paying for contraceptives in their insurance plans but required their insurance companies to provide contraceptives free anyway. The administration argued that the cost would not be passed on to the employer because covering contraceptives is cheaper than paying for births, especially problematic births.

Since the bishops object to the contraceptive mandate for any employer (including Taco Bell), there is nothing that the administration can do to satisfy the bishops completely. But it could adopt the solution proposed by the Catholic Health Association, which wants a complete exemption for religious institutions with the government providing free contraceptives to the institutions’ employees. This solves to conscience problem for Catholic employers while still getting free contraceptives to their employees. It is a win win.

If the administration could not implement such a solution without legislation, then there two minor changes that would deal with at least some of the issues raised by the bishops.

First, the four-part definition of “religious employer,” which was meant to exempt churches, is seriously flawed. It requires that the employer “(1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets;” and 4) be a church as defined in the Internal Revenue Code.

The first three parts of the definition are unnecessary and could pressure Catholic parishes to stop hiring and serving non-Catholics. This presents the image of the pastor turning away non-Catholic homeless people from shelter in the church basement when it is freezing outside. It could also threaten inner-city Catholic parish schools that educate Black students. The IRS has lots of experience distinguishing churches, which are exempt from filing 990 information returns, from other organizations. HHS should not add to the IRS’s definition.

Second, the February adaptation, while exempting hospitals and universities from paying for contraceptive coverage in their insurance policies, requires their insurance provider to give free contraceptives anyway. This might work for normal insurance, but many of these institutions are self-insured. They are the insurance company, so they will still have to pay for contraceptives. HHS hopes to find a solution to this problem, but in the meantime, HHS should simply exempt religious hospitals and universities that are self-insured when the contraceptive mandate goes into effect in August 2013.

Will these changes get the bishops off the administration’s back? No. But they will show that the administration can be gracious in victory and takes seriously the problems faced by Catholic institutions.

Thomas J. Reese is senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. He is the author of a trilogy examining church organization and politics: “Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church” (Harper & Row, 1989), “A Flock of Shepherds: The National Conference of Catholic Bishops” (Sheed & Ward , 1992), and “Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church” (Harvard University Press, 1997)

Written by

  • nkri401

    You’re kidding, right?

    This would be like asking an abused women/men to reach out to the abusing men/women.

  • one nation

    These RC bishops telling RCs how to vote in any way are violating the TAX EXEMPT law’s rules. If their dioceses claim tax exempt with this law’s rule violation, are they not stealing money by not paying their diocese’s just tax? The supreme law in this country is the Constitution which was written for WE THE PEOPLE. Why cannot these bishops understand the Constitution which they do not supersede. The bishops should be reaching out to the president as well staying within the all laws. What would they say of this weeks case in Ireland of the age 31 lady who died account of her miscarriage that she was not allowed the four month old fetus removed? What would they say of the 9 year old , 90 pound girl of twin fetus of four months by the rape of her stepfather in 2009 in Brazil? Abortion is not so cut and dry but are the bishops? What would they require of a raped child? What would they take away from your medical insurance policy? Who should be reaching out to who?

  • willin46

    They have streets named after the Catholic Bishops, One Way!! Like the Republicans, I guess the Catholic Bishops will take and take and still kick Obama around. Who is the Christian here? Obama in compromising or the Catholic Bishops beating up on him? I gues the Catholic hierarchy wants to declare war against the United States. Good luck!

  • DavidJ9

    The bishops have shown that they are just executives for a foreign organization. America need not bow to any kings or popes.

  • Genie

    Without it being official, Obama’s ethics are more aligned with American Catholic Nuns. If these nuns were in control of the Vatican I would consider a return to the church.

  • one nation

    No . Bishops and above of the RCC are the root cause of so many RCs to lose faith in their church. Just look at Ireland or Western Europe or the USA. It is time to call a spade a spade.

  • TomFromMD

    Obama hardly comprimised. The Bishops supported Obamacare after being assured there would be real conscience clauses. He threw them under the bus.

  • itsthedax

    It’s not the President’s job to make the catholic hierarchy relevant.

  • Maerzie

    Which woman takes contraceptives or gets an abortion by force?? Nobody MAKES anyone take any medications or kill their own baby! Why don’t the bishops understand how many women, who otherwise choose to do their own abortiohideoutsns, at home, or at butcher’s hideouts, would otherwise die?? This was the story, prior to 1973, where these women died from hemorrhage or sepsis! Then the 6-10 kids they already had, go without a mother the rest of their lives. Roe vs. Wade SAVES lives. The abortions would be happening with or without a sterile facility and medical staff, as we know for certain from history, even in the Bible B.C. Thousands upon thousands of women have committed their own abortions or had some quack do it for them over the years! The ONLY thing that has changed is that now, the Mothers(?) LIVE! Is that why we had so many orphanages prior to 1973?? The wisdom, research, and THINKING powers of the Bishops, obviously, is not being used. As Sr. Joan Chittister depicted, claiming to be Pro-Life, while not giving a damn about that same baby AFTER the birth, as far as food, clothing, housing, medical care, education, as intended in the proposed Romney-Ryan budget, is NOT Pro-Life. THAT thinking is only Pro-BIRTH!! Then, killing that same baby in unprovoked wars, where we rarely SEE the rich kids on front lines, ALSO is not Pro-Life. God expects us to use our knowledge and our brains in keeping His commandments. His two GREAT commandments are “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, thy whole soul, thy whole mind, and thy whole strength”; and, “LOVE thy neighbor AS THYSELF!” which, in my book, also means gays. Where sin is involved in ANY of these situations is up to the individual to sin or not sin!~~~just like every other sin that surrounds us ALL every day. God gave EACH person a concience and a free will to sin or not sin! Nobody, in normal circumstances, is being FORCED to commit any sin. However, IF the Bishops are concerned, I

  • cricket44

    No, Tom, he just prevented them from discriminating against female employees.

  • observer9

    Why should Obama be gracious to this gang of political thugs who have clearly given up the moral high ground? Their own personal moral failures, and the covering up the crimes of others, have cost them whatever moral authority they once might have had.

    Obama shouldn’t reach out to these guys. They lost the election. He didn’t. Let them wander in the wilderness for a while. It will do them good, and maybe they will realize that a majority of Catholics – including religious women – don’t agree with them any more.

  • leibowde84

    The Bishops need to reach out to Obama and the rest of the country if they want their church to survive in this country. I for one wouldn’t be the least bit sad if we never heard from them again, though. They are part of the problem holding America back from keeping up with reality and progress.

    If they are willing to compromise, as everyone should be willing to do, then by all means, they should approach the President for help. But, if they aren’t willing to let go of their archaic, old-fashioned traditions centered around judgment and a moral dictatorship, they should just shut up.

  • one nation


  • one nation

    Abortion is not cut and dry. What would these bishops say of the lady age 31, a dentist in Galway Ireland hospital that just died last week of a miscarry with days of pain there or the 2009 case in Brizil of a nine year old girl of 90 pounds with 4 month twins by the rape of her step father? What would a good parent do if their teenage daughter was raped? What would a teenage daughter that was raped want her good parents to do? When is a human being a human being?

  • one nation

    Tom, your conscience and everyone conscience are what the bishops want to control. They have your conscience under their control.

  • nkri401

    Bishops think the fetus went to heaven so they are jubilent and the woman – they didn’t care one way or another.

    As long as the fetus can go to heaven…

  • nkri401

    Until the Bishops decide that they are also the citizens of USA and thus equal (not superior) under the law, they should feel lucky that they are not being deported for subverting the Constitution.

    There are no higher laws!!

  • dmuench

    Indeed Obama/HHS should basically rescind the mandate – although the government should provide the contraceptives. Reese is corerct to say that we (liberal) Catholics love our social-service outreach through CRS or Cath Charities and we don’t want the government deciding for us what our ministry is – as someone said it, “We do these things BECAUSE we’re Catholic.” I think that Obama/HHS will get a lot of points in its favor by essentially rescinding the mandate. Romney might call this a “gift” to secure the Catholic vote- but Romney is wrong.


    The government SHOULD NOT provide the contraceptives. If health insurance is part of an employment package and prescription drugs are covered, then no prescription drug should be excluded for any reason. The sole decision regarding prescription drugs lies with the prescribing doctor and the patient.

    Georgetown University and the catholic hospitals are NOT the catholic church. As employers they should function within the existing labor and contract laws. If they cannot adhere to the LAW OF THE LAND (which the catholic bishops have already proven that they will not and cannot), they should close up shop and move to Vaticanland, where I presume no contraceptives are allowed to be sold whatsoever.

  • amelia45

    Well, I am Catholic and I support the HHS mandate and the HHS definition of a “religious employer” as it is now written.

    What we have to remember is that the “religious freedom” the Catholic church wants is the ability to deny real religious freedom to those who work for them.

  • amelia45

    On the contrary, it is time for the Catholic bishops to reach out to the administration. One compromise has already been made. It is the turn of the Catholic bishops to show how they will respect the religious freedom of those who work for them but do not worship with them.

    As a Catholic I do not think our bishops have gotten this one right. It is a clash between how far religious freedom for one can be used to impinge on the religious freedom of another. In a country that believes in individual rights and freedom “from” religion and well as freedom “of” religion, the individual’s right cannot be sold down the river.

  • mikestech

    Respecting the religious freedom of those who work for you is not the same as refusing to provide them with something that violates your own. The bishops respect their employees’ religious freedom by not sanctioning those who choose to buy and use contraceptives on their own. It’s a stretch to say respecting your employees’ freedom means actively participating in their very actions you find objectionable. Freedom goes both ways.

  • one nation

    The RC bishops need to face the fact that they have done more damage then good with their nose in political matters always. The RC bishops are the root cause of so many RC lose of faith in their church. Most USA citizen RC do not fully ( 100% ) agree with teachings of the RCC that they know or the bishops telling RCs who to vote for in any manner. If it was not for the good nuns and good priest, the RCC would come apart.