Is the Catholic Church Just a Super PAC in Robes?
There's not much detail in this New York Times story, but it hints at the unspoken story of the contraception battle: the Catholic Church declared war first, months ago, seemingly (who'da thunk?) just in time for an election that's likely to turn on the electoral votes of large swing states with lots of old, culturally conservative Catholic voters. The church fathers were just looking for an excuse to start shooting:
When after much internal debate the Obama administration finally announced its decision to require religiously affiliated hospitals and universities to cover birth control in their insurance plans, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops were fully prepared for battle.
Seven months earlier, they had started laying the groundwork for a major new campaign to combat what they saw as the growing threat to religious liberty, including the legalization of same-sex marriage. But the birth control mandate, issued on Jan. 20, was their Pearl Harbor.
Hours after President Obama phoned to share his decision with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the bishops’ headquarters in Washington posted on its Web site a video of Archbishop Dolan, which had been recorded the day before....
The speed and passion behind the bishops' response reflects their growing sense of siege....
That last line is nonsense. It doesn't reflect a "state of siege" -- it reflects a sense that a perception of siege can be created, and will sway voters to pull the lever for the party the church favors, which is the GOP.
Over at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner makes the planned nature of all this much more explicit:
Four days before Christmas, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops paid for a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post, co-signed by dozens of leaders of Catholic institutions. But the ad offered no holiday cheer. Instead, it aggressively highlighted the Bishops' pointed confrontation with the Obama administration: either amend a regulation requiring employer health insurance plans to provide contraception without a co-pay, or stand accused of religious discrimination.
The Bishops' opposition to the Department of Health and Human Services rule ... was to date the most public salvo from their Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. That effort was launched last June.... At the Bishops' annual meeting in Baltimore this past November, Dolan took his charges into conspiratorial territory, telling reporters that "well-financed, well-oiled sectors" were attempting to "push religion back into the sacristy." ...
And the bishops have clearly been working hand-in-glove with the GOP for some time:
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution last October, Bishop William E. Lori, chair of the Ad Hoc Committee, described LGBT equality and access to reproductive care as "serious threats to religious liberty," that "represent only the most recent instances in a broader trend of erosion of religious liberty in the United States."
...investigations have already started on Capitol Hill, where Republicans' ears are cocked for controversies they can gin up to paint the Obama administration as anti-religion....
So, yeah, we should call this what it is: super PAC activity.
The Obama administration seems to have dared the bishops to take their best shot on this issue. This morning, it looks as if the bishops are winning -- the administration plans to announce a compromise, although it seems to me that a reasonable swing voter would hear about this compromise and think that the White House is making a quite sensible (and sensitive) accommodation:
... what the White House will likely announce later today is that the relationship between the religious employer and the insurance company will not need to have any component involving contraception. The insurance company will reach out on its own to the women employees. This is better for both sides, the source says, since the religious organizations do not have to deal with medical care to which they object, and women employees will not have to be dependent upon an organization strongly opposed to that care in order to obtain it.
I often see the Obama White House getting entangled in a ginned-up right-wing controversy and seemingly unable to find a way out that will seem reasonable to the center after the right has set the terms of the debate. In this case, though, I suspect that the administration had its next move worked out, and it seems like a good one to me. You're a normal American who supports birth control access? This would preserve that access. You're not terribly religious but you kinda-sorta think that religious groups shouldn't have to involve themselves in stuff they morally object to? This preserves that as well.
What's not to like? The bishops and the wingnuts will angrily answer that question soon, and possibly for months and years to come. But now I think they really may look like the unreasonable ones, even to low-information voters, and even if the right continues to flood the zone with its propaganda.