Lesson from Obama’s HHS: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Lesson from Obama’s HHS: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People November 2, 2011

St. Teresa of Avila is reported to have snapped at God: “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”

This is a point the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops could, with some justification, toss in the teeth of the Obama administration, now that the body has been denied federal money that it seems to have earned fair and square.

The money in question amounts to $4.5 million, in the form of a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services. It is intended to fund assistance to victims of human trafficking — essentially, foreigners recruited to work in the United States for next to nothing and held against their will. The Department of Health and Human Services had originally awarded the grant to the Bishops’ Conference’s Migration and Refugee Services in 2006; the grant expired this past October 10th. It has not been renewed.

The award attracted controversy from the beginning. In 2009, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that, since many victims of human trafficking are raped by employers, they deserve access to reproductive services, including abortion and contraception. This past spring, according to the Washington Post, HHS officials rewrote the guidelines for grant applications to include a “strong preference” for agencies that provide the “full range” of gynecological and obstetrical care.”

It may be a little early to complain that the government is acting from some broad anti-Catholic bias. HHS officials point out that, since the grant to Migration and Refugee Services expired, their department has awarded $19 million to Catholic agencies that assist to foreign refugees — apparently an area in which reproductive issues rarely arise.

But HHS’s own metrics still support the bishops. The Post’s Jerry Markon reports that two of the four groups awarded the grant money in preference to Migration and Refugee Services “scored significantly below the bishops’ application.”

The HHS is awarding priority to reproductive concerns over all others; it’s choosing ideological consistency over effectiveness. Even if it’s not indulging in anti-Catholicism per se, it’s certainly surrendering to tunnel vision.

There’s no denying the Bishops Conference has shown its own pickiness when it comes to choosing partners in social advocacy. Last year, the USCCB withdrew from the Leadership Council for Human Rights, an umbrella group that includes the American Association for People with Disabilities and the American Council of the Blind. The bishops’ objection: the council supports abortion and same-sex marriage. It could be argued that Catholic identity on the cheap is no identity at all.

Yet despite President Obama’s pro-choice views, it has refrained from waging all-out war against him. Archbishop Gregory of Atlanta called his election “a step forward for humanity.” More recently, the Bishops Conference decided, despite pressure from pro-life conservatives, to re-issue the 2007 Guide to Faithful Citizenship, which affords voters considerable latitude. By not absolutely insisting that Catholics become one-issue voters — the one issue being abortion — the USCCB is showing a good deal more flexibility, not to mention, common sense, than HHS has seen fit to do.

Last week, Time Magazine ran an article on “Catholic conservatives,” who make up “about a quarter of the GOP primary electorate.” Obama needn’t worry about these people; he couldn’t win their vote if the only other candidates in the race were Ralph Nader and Lyndon LaRouche. But if the Bishops’ Conference continues thumping the tub — as it does here, through Sister Mary Ann Walsh’s pointed blog — Obama might have to worry about Catholic swing voters and moderates.

Surely these people are already disappointed by his job performance, especially where job creation is concerned. The idea that his appointees are going out of their way to cut their Church out of social services could be the final straw. These people wouldn’t vote for Herman Cain (though they could conceivably vote for Mitt Romney), but they might sit out the election altogether. A dud might be worth voting for; a dud who permits the Church to be needlessly marginalized, not so much.

The Obama administration would do well to remember who its friends are — or at any rate, who they could be, given some restraint and ball-playing. I’ve read conflicting accounts of the circumstances that inspired Teresa of Avila to rant so quotably — some sources say she‘d been bucked off a horse; others, a mule. I’m going to make it a donkey just so I can claim grounds to point out that, unlike her, Catholics these days don’t have to rely on jackasses.

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