I heard the sound of E.J. Dionne screaming and ran to the headlines to see what had happened!
Sharpening an election-year confrontation over religious freedom and government health insurance rules, the nation’s Catholic hospitals on Friday rejected President Barack Obama’s compromise for providing birth control coverage to their women employees.
The Catholic Health Association was a key ally in Obama’s health care overhaul, defying opposition from church bishops to help the president win approval in Congress. But the group said Friday it does not believe church-affiliated employers should have to provide birth control as a free preventive service, as the law now requires.
Honestly, at first I thought I must have misread the copy, but Deacon Greg confirmed, it’s for real, quoting:
In a letter to the federal Health and Human Services department, the hospital group said the compromise initially seemed to be “a good first step” but that examination of the details proved disappointing. The plan would be “unduly cumbersome” to carry out and “unlikely to adequately meet the religious liberty concerns” of all its members, the group said.
This is, as the Deac says, “big news.”. If it seems written in benign fashion by the WaPo, and dropped late on a Friday in summer, Rocco Palmo explains why:
Coming in a five-page letter sent today by the Catholic Health Association to a top HHS administrator, the move (including draft proposals for an acceptable revision of the controversial Federal rule) follows months of tension between the US hierarchy and the association representing some 2,000 Stateside church health facilities, whose president, Daughter of Charity Sister Carol Keehan, stoked the ire of much of the hierarchy after voicing her approval of the White House’s February “accommodation” on the plan, which the bishops deemed as being insufficient.
Today’s letter was signed by Keehan, CHA’s current board chair [Joseph R. Swedish], and his designated successor.
Recall that Sister Keehan’s initial approval of the “accommodation”, like Dionne’s, was released via the White House religion press portal almost simultaneously with the WH announcement; it gave enormous political cover to the president, and helped him to divide a church that had — quickly and uncharacteristically — united against the HHS Mandate. Now, she’s walking it back.
That’s why this is a big deal. CHA represents over 600 Catholic hospitals and hundreds of nursing and rehab facilities; that’s a lot of Catholic energy to be out of agreement with the US Bishops. Perhaps they considered the recent (largely media-ignored) lawsuits filed against the Obama administration in 12 jurisdictions by 43 Catholic entities (including Notre Dame University), and began to consider the HHS enterprise a loser. Hard to tell.
In terms of headlines, the temptation will be for some to crow “Dolan 1, Keehan 0″ but given the extraordinary tensions that exist just now between some of our women religious and the hierarchy, let’s call it Churches 1, Obama 0.
I hope the comboxes will not go nuts with the yay’s and nay’s, particularly since the letter itself has apparently not yet been made public, but reportedly includes some recommendations by the CHA as to what would constitute and acceptable “accommodation.”
:::UPDATE::: New Advent has the pdf of the letter. Excerpt:
— The Definition of “Religious Employer” must be Broadened to Cover All Ministries of the Church. (“The most effective way to achieve the [gov't stated goal of protecting religious organizations] would be to actually exempt objecting religious organizations from the mandate by expanding the definition of religious employer to include them…”)
I’ll link to more as I find it, so check back. So far, no real reactions, but the story — big as it is — may be eclipsed by Obama’s new move on illegal immigration. Who knows, perhaps that’s why Obama made his announcement today. This development cannot make him happy. Nor, I bet could the press finally questioning Obama about something
At dotcommonweal, Grant Gallicho ably answers the “why now?”
Last month, after Cardinal Donald Wuerl promised that “the problem goes away if that definition [of religious employer] is changed,” I suggested that the Obama administration ask itself three questions: Is that definition worth the trouble it created? How does it serve the administration’s policy goals? And is it the only way to achieve those goals? The Catholic Health Association believes the answer to the last question is no. Indeed, if the administration follows CHA’s lead, then even more women would be covered — because, under the proposed accommodation, women who work for fully exempt religious employers would not be eligible for free contraception.
In four days, the comment period for the ANPRM ends. The administration would be wise to heed CHA’s advice — and to do so quickly. Backtracking, of course, has never been the most popular of political maneuvers. But, in this case, it might be the smartest. If HHS deep-sixes the disputed definition, what happens to the lawsuits? What happens to the Fortnight for Freedom? Does the president really want to answer questions about this during the debates? Allowing this controversy to simmer much longer could end up costing him key votes — and health-care reform itself.
Yes, Obama now has a chance, thanks to this move by the CHS, to get out from under a very troublesome, poorly thought-out policy idea and make it all go away, if he can bring himself to backtrack. I think he probably can. What do you think?
Frank Weathers Notes the Feastday
Jimmy Akin: Reads the letter and gets fidgety about the moral implications of the CHA more or less telling Obama how he can extricate himself from his mess while actually providing more contraception/sterilization/abortifacient coverage to women but also points out that Keehan’s history on this issue has been more complex than the White House or the press has suggested.