Over the weekend, I received a response via Twitter to some of my postings of last week, which mostly followed the news. The commenter raised two points. His first was to recommend this article which points out that a “contraception mandate” was already in place ten years ago, suggesting that the bishops' furor now is really opportunistic, given that this is a campaign year. “It was intentional, ugly politics the bishops did, and for no other reason than to give Obama a black eye.” His second point (which, given Twitter's 140 character limit, took several tweets!) was simply the concern that in focusing on this one issue, the bishops are taking things too far, and failing to teach moral responsibility in the matters of justice, refuge for the poor and hungry, and abolition of war.
That is too much to handle in one blog post, so I will respond first to the explicitly political question.
Since I am not a political junkie at all, the only thing I can say about the earlier mandate (I do remember hearing about various cases of Catholic institutions being sued for non-compliance) is that there must be something different in the ruling signed on Friday morning (without the “accommodation” the President spoke of that same day) or the Administration itself wouldn't have announced it back in August, 2011. In fact, it was back in August that the bishops first expressed their reservations about the ruling. In a meeting with Archbishop Dolan, the President assured them that their concerns would be taken into account before the ruling was made definitive. Then, on January 20 (the Administration, not the bishops, chose the date), religious employers were told they had an extra year to comply with a ruling that was otherwise completely unchanged. That's when the bishops went into full assault mode.
What could there be in the August 2011 HHS ruling (affirmed on January 20 and signed February 10) that was differed so much from the policy already in place—and differed so much that it led the US Catholic bishops to create a new committee for the protection of religious freedom?
I suspect it is the attempt on the part of the government to define what does or does not pertain to the religious identity of a social entity. According to the current resident of the White House, a religious organization (the kind that benefits from religious exemptions and conscience clauses) is served by and serves primarily members of its own faith. When a religious entity offers services to the wider community, especially if it employs non-members to do so, it is moving beyond the territory of “religion” and is therefore subject to the usual norms and expectations of any similar secular service provider. What the bishops object to is the government presuming to dictate what constitutes a church's essential mission. As the USCCB spokesman remarked back in August, “Jesus himself wouldn't qualify for a religious exemption” on the White House terms, because he insisted on working healing miracles beyond the boundaries of his coreligionists.
Meanwhile, back at the White House website, the “We the People” petition to rescind the HHS mandate (which had received somewhere in excess of 28,000 signatures in just two weeks) was removed ("thank you for participating"), while a petition in support of free contraception is still working toward the minimum required 25,000 signatures in a month (they got help from news organizations which obligingly included a link in their reports).
A new “Rescind the HHS mandate” petition was made over the weekend. (Make your voice heard...again.)