Dionne’s dutiful dance and those devilish details

When the HHS mandate was first delivered from on high, it so shocked and stunned many Catholics that something rather exceptional occured: for a few moments—even a few days, in a handful of remarkable cases—some of the most openly dissenting, cave-in Catholics were startled awake by the brazen attack leveled by the Obama administration on religious liberty. Some, such as E. J. Dionne, Jr., awoke from their ideological slumber and stumbled to the edge of reality’s bright light and blurrily wondered how the most thoughtful, moderate, and Catholic-friendly President in the history of humanity could ever make such a dreadful blunder:

One of Barack Obama’s great attractions as a presidential candidate was his sensitivity to the feelings and intellectual concerns of religious believers. That is why it is so remarkable that he utterly botched the admittedly difficult question of how contraceptive services should be treated under the new health-care law. His administration mishandled this decision not once but twice. In the process, Obama threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus and strengthened the hand of those inside the church who had originally sought to derail the health care law.

But even as Dionne warily breathed in the fresh air from outside his liberal echo chamber, he admitted being still conflicted about the matter because the clash between “women’s rights” and “religious pluralism” didn’t seem to have an easy answer:

As a general matter, it made perfect sense to cover contraception. Many see doing so as protecting women’s rights, and expanded contraception coverage will likely reduce the number of abortions. While the Catholic Church formally opposes contraception, this teaching is widely ignored by the faithful. One does not see many Catholic families of six or ten or twelve that were quite common in the 1950s. Contraception might have something to do with this.

Speaking as a Catholic, I wish the church would be more open on the contraception question. But speaking as an American liberal who believes that religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think the church’s leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings. The administration should have done more to balance the competing liberty interests here.

Fortunately for Dionne, the Obama administration came through with an “accommodation” that gently—paternally, even—turned him away from the startling sunlight and nudged him back toward the cozy confines of his progressive Catholic cave, where he could return to his main work: sniping with indignation at Catholics not taken in by the President’s cynical shell game. Yesterday, Dionne double-checked the shades, cursed the light, and fired off some of the same tired, left-wing-ish salvos that have long been a matter of pride for those Catholics more interested in the amorphous entity called “social justice” than dealing with actual assaults on, well, social justice:

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops will make an important decision this week: Do they want to defend the church’s legitimate interest in religious autonomy, or do they want to wage an election-year war against President Obama?
And do the most conservative bishops want to junk the Roman Catholic Church as we have known it, with its deep commitment to both life and social justice, and turn it into the tea party at prayer?

This sort of rhetoric is decidedly unserious and misleading. Is Dionne really assuming, against all evidence, that the Obama administration is working in perfectly good faith, but that the bishops (all of whom—every single one—has spoken against the mandate and accommodation) are acting in bad faith and with poor judgment? Apparently so. But Dionne has to rely on left vs. right language in order to distract, as much as possible, from facing up to the sleight-of-hand stunt used to pacify those unwilling to consider how the rmarketplace in the real world and the mechanisms of insurance coverage actually work:

Under pressure, Obama announced a compromise on Feb. 10. It still mandated contraception coverage, but religiously affiliated groups would neither have to pay for it nor refer its employees to alternatives. These burdens would be on insurance companies.

Uh, right. Because insurance companies exist to donate money to cover contraceptives and abortifacients. Please.

George Weigel, who has already written a string of excellent essays on the HHS mandate, ably demolishes both Dionne’s failure to deal with reality and his lacking logic in this March 12th NRO essay:

The government tries to impose an outrageously coercive mandate on the Catholic Church, one that demands that the Church do what its settled moral convictions tell it that it cannot do; the Church’s leaders firmly and politely state that this is wrong as a matter of constitutional first principles. The government then proposes an “accommodation” of the bishops’ concerns that is an insult to the bishops’ intelligence, being nothing less than a cynical shell game; the bishops promise to study the “accommodation,” and then politely and firmly state that it is unacceptable. The bishops seek a legislative remedy, in the form of the Blunt Amendment in the Senate, and are met by the serial calumnies of the administration’s Senate myrmidons; the administration’s allies in the press, in the chattering classes, and in the activist world commit slander against the Church while lying about the nature of the mandate, its scope, and its implications. The White House press secretary is sent out to opine that the U.S. bishops have never been interested in health-care reform, which in fact they’ve been interested in since 1919, four and a half decades before the press secretary was born.

Who is being “strident” here? Who is coercing whom? Who has declared a culture war on whom? Only those lost in the intellectual fog of their own partisanship can fail to see that the bishops have in fact been that “leaven in society” that the brave Father Unnamed wants them to be — and they have done so precisely by leading a public reflection on the meaning of religious freedom in full, at a moment when that first of American liberties is being whittled down by the present administration to a private right of worship.

The arch, as it were, of Dionne’s short excursion from comfortable dissent to uncomfortable confrontation of matters as they really are to hurried scurry back to the confines of the cozy den of dissent, is both unremarkable and instructive. Unremarkable, because he and the editors of America and like-hearted Catholics want the bishops, as Cardinal Dolan rightly noted, “to cave-in and stop fighting”; they long so intensely, it seems, to be liked and feted and invited into the salons of secular power, and since they have already sold their birthright for a mess of contraceptive porridge (along with some other stale foods: women’s ordination, “gay marriage”, etc.), they cannot fathom fighting over what they deem to be minor policy details. Alas, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Instructive, because—to take just one matter—Dionne is loathe to criticize the actions of President Obama but ever eager to try, judge, and damn the motives and intentions of “right wing” bishops, yet without honestly engaging with their publicly expressed concerns and arguments. Related is Dionne’s apparent faith—deep and rarely shaken—in the wisdom and selfless desires of an administration that has a most disturbing and unrelenting antipathy toward innocent life and traditional morality.

Finally, there is an obvious failure to call sin “sin” and truth “truth”, as demonstrated by this remark: “Did Cardinal Dolan really want to suggest to faithfully married Catholic women and men who decide to limit the size of their families that there is any moral equivalence between wanting contraception coverage and visiting a prostitute?”

There is no need to “suggest” that using contraceptives and having sex with a prostitute are equivalent since they are in fact both, objectively, grave sins. Which is why the Catechism, quoting Humanae Vitae, states that “‘every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible’ is intrinsically evil” (CCC, 2370; HV, 14). It says nothing good about the current state of affairs or Dionne’s moral compass in particular that contraception is given such blithe—nay, commending—acceptance, as if a specific mortal sin is easily overlooked in the deep shadows of a cave-in’s cave.

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About Carl E. Olson 1191 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.