Why didn’t Catholic bishops call Biden out by name?

I’m on the road right now, in Montana, and haven’t had a chance to catch Saturday Night Live yet but apparently in the comedy show’s skit on the Vice Presidential debate, the Joe Biden character said:

“I accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. But then, like most Catholics, I ignore them and do what I want.”

Hardy har har. The joke was in reference to a portion of the debate where the moderator treated abortion as a question of faith and then asked both candidates to explain — as Catholics — their position on abortion. During the answer to that question, Republican candidate Paul Ryan brought up the threats to religious liberty posed by the Health and Human Services mandate requiring individuals and organizations to provide health insurance coverage that may violate the teachings of their faith.

In response, Biden said something most interesting (according to this Washington Post transcript):

With regard to the assault on the Catholic church, let me make it absolutely clear, no religious institution, Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic Social Services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy Hospital, any hospital, none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact.

Well, like almost everything uttered by politicians, that’s not a fact. And a few hours later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called him out. Religion News Service had a story that some people brought to our attention:

In a rare public rebuke, Catholic bishops chided Vice President Joe Biden for saying during Thursday’s vice-presidential debate that Catholic hospitals and institutions will not be forced to provide contraception coverage to employees.

Without mentioning Biden by name, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the “inaccurate” statement “made during the Vice Presidential debate” was “not a fact.”

I think some people thought RNS was having fun with scare quotes again. But this is just quote-quoting it. What’s really interesting about this statement from the bishops isn’t just that they called Biden out for lying. They did it without using his name and in a quite passive manner. The quote mechanism used above conveys that.

There was a bit of a problem with inconsistency in using such an approach later in the story, however:

The White House later offered a complex compromise that would allow insurance companies, rather than employers, to pay for the contraceptive coverage. Critics — including the bishops — say it doesn’t go far enough.

“They will have to pay for these things, because the premiums that the organizations (and their employees) are required to pay will still be applied, along with other funds, to cover the cost of these drugs and surgeries,” the bishops’ conference said.

It’s true that the White House claims that its compromise is not a shell game but rather a totally legit way to keep employers from being too involved in paying for things they oppose. Claims should be put forth as just that, however. It’s easy to say that “The White House later offered a change that it says would ….” There’s no reason to adopt the White House talking point. Just say what it is. Obviously people opposed to this mandate think it’s no compromise at all and that the claim is laughable — that the underlying issue is unchanged. So just let them make their case, too — as this story does above.

Anyway, a good story that lays out the bishops’ view and the curious way they made the statement. That might even be worth more coverage — why did the bishops play the passive game of saying some mysterious person at the debate erred? Why did they not call out Biden by name? Religion reporters definitely noticed this. Perhaps there’s some coverage of this I haven’t seen yet. Of course, I also haven’t seen mainstream coverage of another Biden claim on abortion. Many Catholic sites and individuals have lambasted his claim that the basis for Catholic opposition to abortion is de fide. There’s no reason that this interesting debate — along with those about whether the Catholic religion requires particular legislative approaches when it comes to care for the poor — can’t get more mainstream coverage. It really lies at the heart of these important political differences on how society can best protect the lives of the unborn and how society can best take care of the weakest among us.


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