Painted Into a Corner, Catholic Bishops May Have Found a Way to Comply with the HHS Contraception Mandate

Earlier in November, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) held its annual fall meeting, after which it released a Special Message that has raised some a few eyebrows. Why? Well, it just might hold the key to letting the bishops make a graceful exit from the issue of reproductive health-care coverage.

The message focuses specifically on the HHS Mandate that would require all employers — even Catholic ones, such as hospitals and universities — to provide health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization, and other examples of reproductive care the Church calls sinful. It’s not even surprising anymore to hear the bishops double down on what awesome work Catholic charities do, and how unfair it all is.

But some commenters have picked up on a slight change in tone, so subtle it’s invisible unless you’re very, very good at picking out the nuances of the Church hierarchy’s political double-speak:

Even as each bishop struggles to address the mandate, together we are striving to develop alternate avenues of response to this difficult situation. We seek to answer the Gospel call to serve our neighbours, meet our obligation to provide our people with just health insurance, protect our religious freedom, and not be coerced to violate our consciences. We remain grateful for the unity we share in this endeavor with Americans of all other faiths, and even with those of no faith at all.

The bishops’ statement has made a point of mentioning how every bishop is acting independently to address the problem of health insurance coverage. That gives individual bishops the potential leeway to bow out of the battle without seeming to undermine the Church’s larger point. But even more significantly, it acknowledges the search for “alternate avenues of response” that will allow Catholic ministries to continue “answer[ing] the Gospel call” in spite of contraceptive coverage.

We ought not underestimate the importance of that shift. Prior to this statement, the USCCB has approached the situation by throwing a massive tantrum over the HHS mandate. They filed lawsuits; they threatened to shut down services. Some bishops even professed their willingness to go to jail rather than comply. Government, media, and public opinion reacted to these antics with the society-wide equivalent of a bemused shrug.

At that point, many of the bishops seem to have realized that they’re not really keen on (or in some cases even capable of) shutting down services over birth control, and they’re looking for another way — one that lets them save face when they don’t ultimately follow through on those wacky, martyr-style solutions they came up with in the throes of their persecution complex.

Or, as David Gibson of the National Catholic Reporter puts it:

After repeatedly drawing that line in the sand, a growing number of bishops have begun to push back, arguing that such hard-line rhetoric has put them in an untenable position. These bishops do not want to close Catholic institutions over a birth control policy — and they say they actually can’t do so in most cases. In addition, they argue that there is no reason to try — the exemptions and accommodations in the mandate are sufficient, some say, and the church’s teaching that access to good, affordable health care is a basic right should outweigh any remaining reservations.

Sure, that’s what we’ve been trying to tell them all along. But now that they’ve figured it out on their own, they still have to come up with a way to handle the situation that keeps the myth of the Church’s inerrancy intact. Changing a Catholic teaching really only works if you can preface every brand-new idea with the phrase “As the Church has always taught…”

About Sara Lin Wilde

Sara Lin Wilde is a recovering Catholic (and cat-holic, for that matter - all typographical errors are the responsibility of her feline friends). She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where she is working on writing a novel that she really, really hopes can actually get published.

  • Holytape

    Apparently following the law and treating women as humans fall into “alternate avenues of response to this difficult situation.”

    • TheG

      So, treating people with respect for their autonomy in a “Christian manner” is an “alternate avenue of response”? Their last ditch effort is to be semi-sorta almost (begrudgingly) decent?

      Explains it better than I ever could.

      • Holytape

        Well the Catholic Church’s usual avenues of response, e.i. invaliding Jerusalem, blaming the Reformation, and having The Spanish Inquisition jump out from behind potted plants, have not been returning the usual results.

  • Rationalist1

    There you go. Put a Jesuit in charge and you can argue yourself out of any corner.

    Note : I was taught by Jesuits in the past and this is not so much a condemnation of their rhetorical sophistry but their intellectual flexibility.

    • Joe.02

      The church didn’t last 2000 years in various forms w/o some flexibility.

  • C Peterson

    It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in policy when it constantly needs to be structured to save face and get out of embarrassing predicaments.

    • FTP_LTR

      Changing your position to suit new facts as they emerge is a pretty pragmatic approach.

      It’s like any big unwieldy bureaucracy though – when the CEO wants a new direction, it takes a long time for the ship to change course, and for the lowly minions to all get the memo.

      It’s much harder when nobody’s met the CEO, and have to rely on the board of directors interpreting what people believe the CEO said in the last board meeting 2000 years ago.

      [Edit: note to self... don't try to be coherent through a migraine]

      • C Peterson

        Exactly. Like I said, it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in policy!

      • Neko

        You’re perfectly coherent, especially for someone with a migraine.

  • Pofarmer

    The thing is, the Bishop’s position is wildly unpopular with the majority of Catholics, not just the majority of Americans. They need to portray themselves as less out of touch with reality, while trying to soothe the Catholic hardliners.

  • Rip Van Winkle

    What exactly is sinful about not wanting to get pregnant every time you want to have sex?

    Or not wanting to have a period, like any man gets to avoid naturally?

    Or avoiding the pain of pms?

    Or helping offset the problems associated with ovarian cysts or other problems?

    Why do women have to seek permission from celibate men to regulate their sex lives?

    • Holytape

      I looked up the answers in the “Catholic Handbook to Answering Questions and Ridicule from Heretics Using Standard Issue Orthodoxy.”
      On Page 113, the answer to this questions is “Original Sin, yada yada yada, the pope, yada yada yada, foundations of Western Society, yada yada yada Jesus.”

      • Pofarmer

        ding ding ding.

        Also, they live in an alternate reality.

    • C Peterson

      What exactly is sinful about not wanting to get pregnant every time you want to have sex?

      If you believe that there is such a thing as sin, all bets are off for any possibility of rational discussion.

      • JesseS

        In the context of their belief system this one is actually pretty rational, not only is it proscribed against specifically in the Bible but, if you are starting from the assumption that sex is sacred, that life begins at conception, and that the sole purpose of sex is procreation, then the attitude that contraception is morally wrong does follow.

        I agree that their starting premises are wrong, but the conclusion is logically consistent with those premises.

        • C Peterson

          Their premises aren’t just based on a different philosophy, however. They are based on things that are factually wrong. That makes everything else that follows flawed, regardless of the logic.

          Anyway, that wasn’t my objection. My objection is to the very concept of “sin”, which I don’t see as a real thing. There is no way to carry on a productive conversation about something like this with somebody who believes in sin.

      • Joe.02

        Eh. The general Catholic uses birth control. They don’t find anything wrong with it. They still probably believe in ‘sin’ as do lots of reasonable sorts. If people think murder is sinful, I don’t think “all bets are off” that they can be rationally dealt with. There are shades.

        • C Peterson

          There is nothing reasonable about believing in sin.

          • Joe.02

            First, it would be helpful if you explain what you mean by “sin” — the question might be tedious, but it is an open-ended word. More importantly, that isn’t the point. People who you can have reasonable discussions with often believe in some unreasonable thing. If sin is an unreasonable thing, fine — I still think many who believe in the concept can be a partner in reasonable debate.

    • Sven2547

      It really makes a ton of sense that the Roman Catholic Church would attach a lot of mysticism and superstition to sex… their leadership is (supposedly) celibate. They see an idealized, holy act as opposed to something that can be fun and healthy.

    • Derrik Pates

      Because sex is a gift. But only when it’s done in marriage. And to make babies. And through a hole in a sheet.

      Or maybe that was the orthodox Jews? I can never keep it all straight.

    • Greg G.

      What exactly is sinful about not wanting to get pregnant every time you want to have sex?

      The sin is in having sex without wanting to get pregnant.

      Edit: That’s not my opinion. It’s their opinion as I understand it.

    • UWIR

      Your first and last questions are distortions, and the rest are outright misrepresentations.

  • Rationalist1

    And why nary a complaint about their health plans paying for vasectomies, Viagra for unmarried men and for that matter treating STD at all in men. Similar to the bishops opposing the HPIV vaccine for young women because it encourages them to have sex. No if the men knew they wouldn’t get treatment for STD’s they might not be so promiscuous. They have zero credibility on this issue.

    • Pofarmer

      FWIW, they oppose vasectomies too.

      • Ibis3

        Sure, but they don’t go full on martyr to protest the potential that their insurance policies might cover someone’s. When was the last time you heard a bishop even mention the word?

        • Pofarmer

          When they talk about not covering contraceptives, beleive me, they are talking about that too.

      • pRinzler

        It didn’t seem like they were shouting very loudly about vasectomies, though. I wonder why? Or, perhaps the media didn’t report it?

    • Noelle

      Most insurance companies don’t cover Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis. Catholic companies who refuse to cover contraceptive services for women also refuse to cover the vasectomies for the men. I have no idea why men aren’t complaining loudly about this.

  • L.Long

    We can get the contraception option into their insurance very easily.
    TAX the phuck out of religion!!!
    Then make them do the same paperwork as any secular charity has to do. Then we will see that all the money they make is going to help themselves and the poor is of little or no concern. They will be so busy covering their illegal activities they wont have time to worry about some women problems.
    They may say otherwise but the abrahamic religions ALL HATE women and think they should all die horribly, they believe in a psychotic gawd,and sin, and that women are the root of all evil, you can not argue with these people using logic. They need to be slapped down using law. That is why the founders made this country basically secular so that no one religion can get control as they had in Europe’s past.

  • Neko

    This crusade was such a farce. Similar mandates had been in effect at the state level without pious grandstanding from the bishops. The USCCB’s lavishing resources on the campaign to defeat Obama and the health care mandate, while making faint effort to bring clergy to justice in the sex abuse scandals, has gained them little but public humiliation. I guess Pope Francis finally blew the whistle on the whole fiasco.

  • God’s Starship

    “Hey, boss? Can I have birth control so I can fuck my husband? See you after lunch!”