Thursday, October 10, 2013

Role of the U.S. Catholic Bishops in the Shutdown: Holding Government Funding Hostage in Battle Against Contraceptive Coverage

Religious Freedom Hearings, D.C., Feb. 2012

In an editorial just uploaded to its website, America rightly deplores the effects of the shutdown of government on working people and people living on the margins of the American socioeconomic system. The editorial notes that many people are now forced to wonder when they'll receive the next paycheck, park facilities have been shuttered around the country, and hundreds of cancer patients, including 30 children per week, have been locked out of their last-resort treatment at NIH's Clinical Center. And it adds,

These are just a handful of the pernicious effects of the shutdown that resulted on Oct. 1 after the G.O.P’s latest effort to obstruct the Affordable Care Act. The closing of the federal government not only shuts down so-called nonessential services, like nutrition aid to women, infants and children, it also means that a federal flow of $3 billion a day into the already twitchy American economy has been cut off.

But then America goes on to maintain that the U.S. Catholic bishops "were aghast at the political breakdown" and wrote a letter to Congress on 1 October arguing that human needs must continue to be met, even if the government has shut down. Unfortunately, however, that 1 October letter, written as the shutdown began, comes on the heels of another letter that the USCCB sent (.pdf file) to Congress on 26 September. That letter is signed by Cardinal Sean O'Malley, chair of the Pro-Life Committee of USCCB (and a member of Pope Francis's "gang of eight"), and Archbishop William E. Lori, chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty.

The 26 September letter states,

We have already urged you to enact the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 940/S. 1204). As Congress considers a Continuing Resolution and debt ceiling bill in the days to come, we reaffirm the vital importance of incorporating the policy of this bill into such "must-pass" legislation (emphasis in original).

In other words, though on 1 October, as the shutdown began, the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote Congress to insist that human needs must continue to be met during a government shutdown, on 26 September they were encouraging members of Congress to hold the re-funding of government hostage to their insistence that even private, non-faith-based employers be allowed a "Taco Bell" exemption from the requirement of the Affordable Care Act that they provide contraceptive coverage for employees.

Permit us to discriminate--permit anyone, even a private employer in a company in no way affiliated with a religion to discriminate--or else. Or else we'll hold the nation hostage until our "conscientious" demands are met. As Adele Stan notes, it appears the USCCB wants to have it both ways: we're for the shutdown of government as a tool of holding the government hostage until our "conscientious" demands are met; but we're against it when it creates suffering for people. 

Stan writes,

The bishops want to be on the record as champions of health care for the masses, food for the hungry, and shelter for the homeless—things the government, when operational, helps to provide. But they’re happy to block access to such services for those in need of them unless Congress agrees to block women of all faiths or none, on the whim of an employer, from receiving prescription birth control as part of the preventive care benefit in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). 
If that doesn’t work, they wouldn’t mind seeing the global economy brought to its knees for the sake of making the most effective forms of contraception more difficult for women to obtain.

And she's correct. Via its 26 September letter to Congress, the USCCB gave a clear signal to Congress--and, in particular, to the radical Republican faction controlling the House of Representatives--that it approves of using the re-funding of the federal government as a weapon to try to roll back a provision of the Affordable Care Act to which the bishops object. So it's with astonishingly clumsy grace that the bishops, who have torn their moral credibility to shreds by their persistent shrill attacks on the Affordable Care Act, pretend now to give a hoot about the human effects of the shutdown they themselves helped to precipitate.  

Pastoral leaders these men are clearly not, on the whole. Politicians, yes, and partisan ones, to boot. And they deserve to be held accountable, along with other religious and political extremists, for what has happened as they have harped about their right to a "religious freedom" that translates into their purported right to discriminate in the provision of healthcare, as the ACA is being implemented. 

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