What you see at the top of this post is the content of today's Baltimore Sun report on yesterday's decision by the U.S. Catholic bishops -- or at least, many of them -- to continue their high-stakes fight against the White House and its Health and Human Services mandate.
Right. The box is empty.
I am referring, of course, to the mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called “morning-after pills.” There's more to that mandate, of course. As I wrote for Scripps Howard News Service:
The key is that the HHS mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of an employer if it’s a nonprofit that has the “inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” primarily employs “persons who share its religious tenets” and primarily “serves persons who share its religious tenets.” Critics say this means the government is protecting mere “freedom of worship,” not the “free exercise of religion” found in the First Amendment.
“Consider Blessed Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity reaching out to the poorest of the poor without regard for their religious affiliation,” said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lorio this June, during the American bishops’ Fortnight For Freedom campaign. “The church seeks to affirm the dignity of those we serve not because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic.”
Now, everyone knew -- coming into this Baltimore meeting -- that there were two big events on the horizon. (1) The election of new officers, including a new president to follow the charismatic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. (2) A decision by the bishops, after what would almost certainly be tense closed-door debates, about whether to fight the HHS mandate, a decision affecting thousands of Catholic schools, hospitals, shelters and other ministries from coast to coast.
In other words, there was one event that looked like a political horse race, framed as who is for or against the new spirit of Pope Francis, and another event rooted in a Constitutional clash over religious liberty (oh, right, that would be "religious liberty"), a clash that way too many newsroom professionals think is a figment in the imagination of theocrats (even though White House officials have acknowledged the tensions).
Thus, that empty box offered by the Sun and most other news outlets. To read the Catholic News Service report, click here.
Want to guess which of these two stories in Baltimore drew the attention of editors at the assignment desks in mainstream newsrooms?
Right, the one that looked like a political election. The New York Times "election" coverage was typical:
BALTIMORE -- The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops on Tuesday chose as leaders of the bishop’s conference two prelates whose pastoral approach evokes the new tone for the church set by Pope Francis.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the new president of the conference, has a master’s degree in social work, took care of his brother with Down syndrome and said the “most important time” he has ever spent was the 12 years he served as pastor in a parish.
Now, please hear me say that this "tone shift" story is real.
At the same time, should the Times team have noted that in recent years Kurtz has been primarily known, at the national level, as the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage and Family Life? That would have been a highly relevant fact to have included, even if it didn't fit the "new tone" template.
By the way, I cannot find a Times report on the crucial HHS mandate statement, either -- even though, theoretically, the decision leaves open the option of bishops -- at least the ones willing to take a stand -- going to jail in a campaign of civil disobedience. Got news?
For those who want to know what the bishops had to say, I would suggest doing what serious news readers have been doing for sometime now when it comes to the nuts and bolts of Catholic life. Click here for the full text at Whispers in the Loggia. Here is a sample or two:
Pope Francis has reminded us that “In the context of society, there is only one thing which the Church quite clearly demands: the freedom to proclaim the Gospel in its entirety, even when it runs counter to the world, even when it goes against the tide.”
We stand together as pastors charged with proclaiming the Gospel in its entirety. That Gospel calls us to feed the poor, heal the sick, and educate the young, and in so doing witness to our faith in its fullness. Our great ministries of service and our clergy, religious sisters and brothers, and lay faithful, especially those involved in Church apostolates, strive to answer this call every day, and the Constitution and the law protect our freedom to do so.
Despite our repeated efforts to work and dialogue toward a solution, those problems remain. Not only does the mandate undermine our ministries’ ability to witness to our faith, which is their core mission, but the penalties it imposes also lay a great burden on those ministries, threatening their very ability to survive and to serve the many who rely on their care.
The current impasse is all the more frustrating because the Catholic Church has long been a leading provider of, and advocate for, accessible, life-affirming health care. We would have preferred to spend these recent past years working toward this shared goal instead of resisting this intrusion into our religious liberty. We have been forced to devote time and resources to a conflict we did not start nor seek.
As the government’s implementation of the mandate against us approaches, we bishops stand united in our resolve to resist this heavy burden and protect our religious freedom.
Stay tuned. This fight could end up being covered by your local newspaper.