Saturday, November 19, 2011

Fears Grow That Obama Administration Will Cave in to USCCB Lobby re: Proposed HHS Guidelines

As I did several days ago, various commentators are asking whether President Obama will cave in to the U.S. Catholic bishops' lobby re: Health and Human Services guidelines, following his secret meeting with Mr. Dolan, USCCB president, right before the USCCB gathering. The point of controversy: suggested guidelines that would require employers' health care plans to cover contraceptives.

Both Irin Carmon at Salon and Laura Bassett at Huffington Post note growing concerns on the part of some groups that the president may well ultimately give in to the bishops and let them dictate government policy in this area.  The U.S. Catholic bishops continue to try to frame the discussion as all about religious freedom.  Bassett cites Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the USCCB: 

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said if the Obama administration chooses not to expand the religious exemption, he will be trampling on the First Amendment rights of the Catholic Church. 
"A Catholic organization cannot be forced to pay for services that go against its teaching," she said. "It's just untenable. We're hoping for a decision which respects religious freedom."

This statement echoes what Sr. Walsh has said on behalf of the bishops from the outset of this manufactured political controversy.  This past July, when the controversy began, she wrote the following in the Washington Post

Some ridicule the church’s stance on contraception but the spiritual truth is that contraception deliberately deprives human sexual intimacy of an essential part of its depth and meaning. A man and woman through their sexual union express total commitment and openness to each other, including openness to conceive and nurture a new human person.

Though some centrist Catholic media gurus (e.g., see here) who function as virtual mouthpieces of the USCCB keep trying to spin the controversy as all about abortion and about a creeping movement by the government in the direction of supporting abortion through healthcare coverage, contraception itself is and has been the central focus of this made-up political controversy from the outset.

I call the controversy made up and political for the following reasons.  First, though the centrist Catholics who are colluding with the bishops to try to gin up fears that "Catholic" religious freedom is under attack by the Obama administration say they're only articulating what "we Catholics" believe about contraception, an overwhelming majority of American Catholic women have used birth control, and an overwhelming majority of American Catholics disagree with magisterial teaching about artificial contraception.

The bishops and their centrist media mouthpieces are not representing "us Catholics" as they try to draw a political line in the sand about this issue.  And this brings me to the second point: this is a political fight.  It's all about the bishops searching for some way to make a loud, public symbolic gesture that appears to reassert their waning moral authority which has now been decisively trashed by revelations about their behavior vis-a-vis clerical abuse of minors.

The bishops desperately want--they need--a win right now.  They need to divert the conversation from their abysmal shortcomings as pastoral leaders to discussions about how they still have the clout to make public policymakers bow to their will in areas in which "Catholic" morality is at stake.

By conflating abortion and contraception, and forcing the Obama administration to back down on the HHS guidelines, they hope to regain among the public a sense that they still retain moral credibility and authority--and political influence.  A win for them vis-a-vis this largely symbolic controversy about "Catholic" religious freedom (largely symbolic and "Catholic," since real-life Catholics living in the real world use contraceptives) will give heart to their right-wing political allies, and above all to the deep-pockets right-wingers who have become, in the past few decades, the bishops' closest friends and advisors, and who continue to use these symbolic culture-war issues to promote their regressive economic agenda for American society.

And if the Obama administration approaches this controversy with the political calculus it has been wont to use re: such "faith-based" issues and faith-based voters, it may well decide that it can make a concession to the U.S. Catholic bishops a win-win situation for both sides.  The bishops can use their "victory" vis-a-vis health care plans and contraceptive coverage to build cred among their friends of the political right (and, as they imagine, to restore their badly damaged moral authority).  And the Obama administration can use a concession to point to its centrist cred and to reassure "faith-based" Democrats that it takes their conservative concerns seriously.

This will definitely be a drama to watch.  Yesterday, one of the most right-wing Catholic colleges in the U.S., an institution with close ties to the Legionaries of Christ and very cozy ties to well-connected and wealthy right-wing supporters, Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, filed suit against the federal government re: the proposed HHS guidelines.  The timing of this suit speaks loudly and clearly about the intent of right-wing political groups, acting in alliance with the Catholic bishops, to make the HHS guidelines a convenient political rallying point as the 2012 elections approach.

The Belmont Abbey College suit makes the politically manufactured HHS controversy even more one to watch closely.  As the 2012 elections near, look for those funding the conservative movement and its attempts to unseat the Obama administration to try, ever more outspokenly, to use both the gay issue and this contraceptive issue--that is to say, to use "Catholic" issues--to herd religious-right voters to the polls.    The bottom line of this political discussion--the line to keep watching--is this: in recent decades, the U.S. Catholic bishops and groups aligned with them within the Catholic church in the U.S. have sold the soul of American Catholicism to the Republican party and to the wealthy elite whom that party serves overtly.

As this alliance bears ever more bitter fruit, will the bishops and their allies continue down the path they've been on for some time now--a path of totally abdicating all their real moral authority and real moral influence, as they remain tight-lipped about the burning moral issues of our day, most of all, about the aggregation of massive wealth in the hands of the few while the many suffer? And will they continue beating the culture-war drum re: issues of sexual morality to please their deep-pockets funders?

Or will they begin to recognize the damage they have done to their church--damage that has not been done by those outside the church they wish to target as enemies--and begin to rectify that damage by recovering the authentic Catholic moral perspective and an authentic Catholic voice?  Time will tell.

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