A Most Vexing Problem

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By Stephen P. White

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The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne, the most prominent voice on All Things Catholic in the Court of Obama, publicly opposed the narrow religious exemption set forth in the HHS “contraceptive” mandate. He went so far as to say that President Obama had “utterly botched” the handling of the mandate, and that in so doing, the president was “throwing his progressive Catholic allies under the bus.” Despite all that, Dionne has recently taken to playing the role of the administration’s most ardent and vocal Catholic defender in the HHS controversy. What gives?

Let’s review the bidding. “The most vexing problem with the original exemption on contraception,” Dionne once explained, “is that it defined ‘religious’ so narrowly that the reality that these organizations go out of their way to serve non-Catholics was held against them. Their gospel-inspired work was defined as nonreligious. This violated the very essence of Christian charity and the church’s social-justice imperatives.”

Notice, Dionne’s objection had nothing to do with contraception, or who even pays for it. His objection had to do with what distinctions the government can and cannot justly make vis-à-vis the nature of the Church. Simply put, it is a religious freedom argument. In fact, it is almost identical to one religious liberty argument – there are several to be made — offered by the Administrative Committee of the USCCB which describes the mandate as “unjust and illegal” and a threat to religious liberty of “unprecedented magnitude”:

HHS thus creates and enforces a new distinction — alien both to our Catholic tradition and to federal law — between our houses of worship and our great ministries of service to our neighbors, namely, the poor, the homeless, the sick, the students in our schools and universities, and others in need, of any faith community or none.

The “original” religious exemption to which Dionne objected was founded upon a highly restrictive, four-part legal test to determine who does and does not qualify as a “religious employer” for purposes of exemption. Alas, as Dionne well knows, that exact rule has since been entered into the federal register “without change.”

Moreover, the administration has made it perfectly clear that, when it does finally issue an accommodating rule, the one thing that won’t be included is a revision of the restrictive four-part test for religious employers. Dionne’s “most vexing problem” turns out to be one of the administration’s non-negotiables.

By now it is perfectly clear that the odious four-part religious test was not, as Dionne originally insisted, a rare unforced political error made by a usually faith-savvy President Obama. If it were simply a misstep, the president would have quickly and easily corrected his mistake. Instead President Obama doubled down, reaffirming his principled disregard for religious liberty and effectively telling his “progressive Catholic allies” – including Dionne — that if they don’t want to be under the bus, they best get aboard.

Faced with that choice, Dionne’s concern over the “most vexing” threat to religious liberty has vanished in the political wind.

Meanwhile, since the administration isn’t backtracking, it needs to find cover. HHS is punting on the final “accommodation” until well after the election, by which time the president with either be safely reelected or lame-ducking it until January. Either way, there’s zero political incentive to finally produce those “sensible conscience protections” he’s been promising since he took the podium at Notre Dame three years ago. Apart from pushing further rule-making into post-election limbo, the administration wants to prevent the mandate’s opponents from gaining any traction between now and November.

That’s where Dionne comes in. No one wants his champion knocked from the pedestal, and so rather than see his favored president suffer the political consequences of his manifest hostility to religious liberty, Dionne turned his venom on the most steadfast and effective opposition to the HHS mandate: the Catholic bishops.

From his perch at the Washington Post, Dionne darkly warned that the “most conservative bishops” are perfectly willing to “junk the Roman Catholic Church as we have known it, with its deep commitment to both life and social justice, and turn it into the Tea Party at prayer.” This from a man who, mere weeks before, wrote in the very same space that the HHS mandate, “violated the very essence of Christian charity and the church’s social-justice imperatives.”

And while the bishops, unlike Dionne, have remained steadfast in their opposition to the mandate, Dionne has the temerity to suggest that, for partisan reasons, the bishops have “transformed a moment of exceptional Catholic unity into an occasion for recrimination and anger.”

One can easily imagine how disconcerting it must be for someone who takes his Catholic faith seriously – as Dionne undoubtedly does — to find himself at odds with a so unified a bishops’ conference. But Dionne alone must answer for his politics and loyalties, as we all must. As for his angry recriminations in defense of that most vexing mandate, let us take solace knowing that petulance is rarely a sign of strength. Mandatum delendum est.

Stephen P. Whiteis a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.

This article first appeared on “The Catholic Thing” (www.thecatholicthing.org), copyright 2012, all rights reserved.