Bishops hope to restart talks with White House over contraception mandate

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The Catholic bishop leading the push against the White House’s contraception mandate says the bishops hope to restart contentious talks with the Obama administration, but cautioned that church leaders “have gotten mixed signals from the administration” and the situation “is very fluid.”

Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., who chairs the religious liberty committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Religion News Service that Catholics have to stay united if the hierarchy is to have any chance of prevailing in negotiations with the White House.

Ever since President Obama bowed to growing pressure and shifted the mandate to provide contraception mandate to insurance companies and away from religious employers, the White House has been hosting talks with various religious groups about a plan to modify the regulation.

Catholic institutions like hospitals, universities and social service agencies are most directly affected by the regulation because they are the biggest faith-based employers. They have also been much more amenable to the Obama accommodation than have the bishops.

Many bishops are upset with Catholic groups that have dealt independently with the administration, and some have also accused the administration of trying to divide the church.

“I think the hardest thing is that the administration deals with us in a segmented way,” said Lori, who has testified before Congress three times in opposition to the mandate.

“If there is really going to be a solution to things, we ought to all be in the room,” he said.

Lori said the bishops “do not have a monopoly on the church” but are nonetheless “responsible for a large part of how this works and for the Catholicity of all the institutions. So there ought to be an attempt to have an inclusive conversation with the Catholic Church, and not a segmented one. And I think that is in part why we are in a fairly unhappy spot right now.”

Lori and some 40 other leading bishops will meet in Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday (March 13-14) for discussions expected to focus on relations with the White House and, in particular, the contraception mandate.

Lori said that the bishops “are not looking for a fight with the administration.” The bishops, he said, “are painfully aware that it is awfully difficult, in an election year and in the culture we have now, to have that conversation” about birth control.

“Are we doing it perfectly? No, of course not. But that’s certainly our intent.”

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