Catholic Health Association switches sides on HHS mandate


Why does huge news frequently drop on a Friday? It's an old political trick to get bad news out in the Friday Night News Dump. Reporters loathe these as they want nothing more than to head to the bar (or whatever) and begin the weekend. This year has seen quite a few Friday news releases affecting religion reporters, mostly related somehow to the HHS mandate requiring religious groups to purchase insurance coverage that may violate their religious beliefs. And this Friday fit into that pattern with some pretty big news about one of the key players in this debate switching sides. Here's how the Washington Post put it:

The White House has lost perhaps its most prominent Catholic ally in its controversial effort to expand contraception coverage, with the huge Catholic Health Association saying Friday that the mandate for most religious employers to offer coverage would not “adequately meet the religious liberty concerns.”

The change of position at the association, the country’s largest group of nonprofit health care providers, comes as polls show President Obama and Mitt Romney tied among registered Catholic voters. In the last four of five presidential races, the candidate who won Catholics won the presidency.

Ah politics. Something tells me, however, that we won't see the same types of stories about CHA that we were seeing in recent weeks about the Catholic bishops and other opponents of the mandate having a secret partisan plot against the current chief executive. I liked how this paragraph explained the situation in laymen's terms:

The mandate that employers, including most religious ones, offer employees a variety of preventative services including contraception without any out-of-pocket charge, has been controversial among some from the start, particularly Catholic bishops. Actual houses of worship were exempted, but not other faith-based institutions like schools or hospitals that don’t primarily employ or serve people of the same faith.

It might also be nice to point out the abortion drug and sterilization issues, which are also of concern. The short blog post didn't mention something I found interesting from the group's letter, which is that they suggested the federal government might just use taxpayer dollars to fund these services (if they really think these things are important to provide at no cost to employees) rather than get religious employers directly involved. I was curious how that suggestion matched up with Catholic teaching. A writer at Commonweal picked up on the CHA proposal and had some interesting thoughts about it, if you're interested. So did this writer at National Catholic Register.

Which reminds me of something I've been meaning to write about but probably won't because the moment has passed. A few weeks ago there was a story that got quite a bit of play in the media alleging that bishops (although only one was named) were "divided in legal battle against Obama birth control mandate." The one guy on the record, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton, immediately clarified. He said “I stand solidly with my brother bishops in our common resolve to overturn the unacceptable intrusion of government into the life of the Church by the HHS Mandate."

And when I was reading his overall comments, I was struck by how his initial comments weren't actually that different from his clarification. He seemed worried that some people might exploit the bishops' legal arguments or treat them as partisan. He wanted to make sure that didn't happen precisely because he thought the issue was so important. It was a pretty nuanced and subtle position but you can see how it can easily be manipulated by media and advocates who want to cast someone's position one way or the other.

And believe it or not, I think that something similar happened with Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Health Association. Yes, it's true that her statement in support of the suggested modification was highlighted by the White House in advance of President Obama's statement on same and that her language was pretty effusive. But later that same day, she came out in a different direction, saying:

CHA and its members were profoundly disappointed to learn that the definition of a religious employer was not going to be broadened in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' rules for preventive services for women.

The impact of being told we do not fit the new definition of a religious employer and therefore cannot operate our ministries following our consciences has jolted us.

It is her first statement -- and not the later -- that made it into so many news stories the next few days, weeks and months. I don't think the media have done a good job of accurately portraying CHA's opposition to the suggested modification.

Yes, this is a big change of official position, but CHA's history on this mandate is more complex than you've probably been told.

Anyway, even though this was a Friday night news dump, I don't think it will stay a Friday night news story. It's big. In the meantime, here's an initial story in the Wall Street Journal, another from the Associated Press, Religion News Service here, and thoughts from Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter. Let us know what additional news stories you see that are particularly good or bad.

Angelfish picture via Shutterstock.

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