The Blaire Switch Project

News broke a couple of days ago, via America magazine, that Bishop Stephen E. Blaire (Diocese of Stockton, CA), had some serious questions about how the bishops were addressing the HHS mandate:

Bishops Blaire acknowledged that “there is a concern among some bishops that there ought to have been more of a wider consultation” regarding overall strategy on the religious liberty question. “And I say that with some hesitation,” he added, “because the California bishops very strongly support whatever action has to be taken to promote religious liberty.

“The question is what is our focus as bishops and that we have opportunity to clarify our focus and that we are all in agreement on focus.” He said some bishops appear to be speaking exclusively on the mandate itself “that it is imposed … as a violation of [individual] conscience.”

He said there are other bishops who see the crucial question as the religious liberty of the church itself and its freedom “to exercise her mission through her institutions.” He added, “I think that it’s important that there be a broader discussion of these issues [at the June U.S. bishops meeting in Atlanta]” so that U.S. bishops can clarify their message “and not allow it to be co-opted.”

Bishop Blaire explained he was worried that some national groups appear to be seizing on the issue and transforming the dispute over religious liberty into a political fight.

“I am concerned that in addressing the H.H.S. mandate,” he said, “that it be clear that what we are dealing with is a matter of religious liberty and the intrusion of government into the church and that it not be perceived as a woman’s issue or a contraceptive issue.

“I think there are different groups that are trying to co-opt this and make it into political issue, and that’s why we need to have a deeper discussion as bishops.”

One of my Top Twenty Pet Peeves is the statement, rendered in one form or another, that “such and such is being turned into a political issue”, because 99 times out of a 100, it is a way of avoiding the real issue, deflecting legitimate questions or criticism, or lazily impugning the motives of others. It is a favorite tactics of progressives, who would rather, to steal from Jonah Goldberg, resort to the tyrannical language of clichés than real tackle the problem at hand. Anyhow, Dr. Jeff Mirus of wrote a very patient and level-headed piece yesterday about Bp. Blaire’s remarks, saying:

Bishop Blaire is afraid that wider support will be lost if the fight seems to be “political”. For Bishop Blaire, it is apparently not political if the Church is merely asserting her institutional independence, emphasizing her own institutional religious liberty under the principle of separation of Church and state. But apparently it becomes political for Bishop Blaire if “different groups” attempt “to co-opt this and make it into a political issue”, that is, “a woman’s issue or a contraceptive issue,” using it as a sort of Republican excuse to mount “an anti-Obama campaign”. He is certainly correct that there is more national sympathy for religious rights than there is for moral opposition to contraception. But he is completely wrong to think that any of these issues, as they are brought to a head by the HHS Mandate, can escape being political.

Moreover, a broader emphasis on the religious liberty or conscience rights of all citizens does not at all transform the fight into a campaign to eliminate the freedom of people to purchase their own contraceptives. That is not what the lawsuits are about. It is disingenuous to suggest that these lawsuits turn the battle into “a woman’s issue or a contraceptive issue.”

But it is a political issue, and even Bishop Blaire’s own assessment is irretrievably political. He believes that the Obama Administration is anxious to resolve its problem with the Church, so that negotiations will bear far more fruit than lawsuits. This is precisely a political judgment (and a rather typically naïve political judgment of the kind that led Timothy Cardinal Dolan to be surprised that President Obama does not keep his moral promises). In any case, for the bishops to fight the government for their own institutional independence is just as much a political issue as for the laity to fight the government for their personal religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Whenever the direction of government, law and regulation must be changed, the issue is by definition political.

Phil Lawler then noted that Bp. Blaire’s statements indicated a “a dangerous crack in the bishops’ united front”, noting:

Sure enough, as soon as Bishop Blaire spoke to America, columnist E.J. Dionne pounced on the opportunity in Commonweal. Bishop Blaire’s statement had come at a time when the USCCB campaign against the HHS mandate was in the headlines, after 41 Catholic institutions joined in a lawsuit to block the policy. Dionne’s column raised the first questions about those suits. “It turns out that many bishops, notably the church leadership in California, saw the litigation as premature,” he said.

Dionne went on to paint a picture of a divided episcopal conference, with a few powerful “conservative” prelates bullying the more moderate majority. “For too long,” he complained, “the Catholic Church’s stance on public issues has been defined by the outspokenness of its most conservative bishops and the reticence of moderate and progressive prelates.” That description of USCCB affairs might astonish people who have been following the bishops’ highly public campaigns against budget cuts and immigration restrictions and nuclear weaponry and the war in Iraq: subjects on which the “moderate and progressive prelates” have been anything but reticent. But for readers who do not follow the USCCB closely, and especially for those who think that only “conservative” Catholic bishops oppose abortion, the argument may sound plausible enough.

Dionne, one of the poster boys for “cave-in Catholicism”, relies, like so many MSM columnists, on the general cluelessness of his readers. This perpetuates the sort of misunderstandings that lead to more and more confusion about what the Church really teaches, what are the essential principles of Catholic social doctrine, and so forth. Bp. Blaire, to his credit, recognized the problems caused by his remarks, and so yesterday released the following note of clarification:

I wish to clarify some misunderstandings related to my comments about the HHS Mandate.    

First of all, 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. In March, the Administrative Committee issued a statement of commitment to persuade the Administration to eliminate this interference, the Congress to overturn it or the courts to stop it. I contributed to and voted for this statement, and continue to support it, including its call for legal action as was announced on Monday.  

The fundamental issue is the freedom of the Church to carry out her mission as given by Christ.  Religious Freedom protects the right of the Church to define herself and her ministries. It is totally unacceptable to have the federal government decide that our religious ministries are not “religious.” The continuing effort of the government to intrude itself by re-defining Catholic ministries as somehow less religious or less Catholic because they employ or serve those without regard to their creed is unjust and a violation of religious liberty. The government should not intrude itself in forcing the Church and her institutions to violate her long standing teaching to provide essential health care to her employees.      

From my perspective, the recent legal challenges by dioceses and Catholic entities throughout the United States, as well as discussions with the Administration, and the advocacy of Congress, all have one essential goal: to defend the right of the Church to define herself and to preserve the identity and integrity of the Catholic ministries exercised through her institutions.    

I am convinced we need to continue to seek to persuade others to join us in this just cause through reasoned, civil and respectful discussion. Our defense of religious liberty is advanced when there is open discussion about the best strategies to promote our common goal.  

I look forward to the discussions at the Bishops’ meeting in June which will offer us an opportunity to agree on next steps to achieve our common and essential goal of ending this violation of religious freedom.  

“The freedom of the church is the fundamental principle governing relations between the church and public authorities and the whole civil order.”(The declaration on religious liberty, 13, Second Vatican Council)

My issue with Bp. Blaire’s previous remarks, going back to his criticism of Paul Ryan’s budget, is that he seems to have a decidedly one-sided notion of what is “political”. According to any reasonable critieria, his statement (in his May 8th letter to the House of Representatives) that Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget has “proposed cuts” that “fail this basic moral test” (of protecting the poor and vulnerable) was political; it was a criticism directed at a specific piece of proposed policy and it assumed, I think, the worst about Ryan’s motives and goals. It’s not that criticizing Ryan’s budget is out of bounds, as it isn’t, but that having it both ways comes across as, well, political.

Regardless, the bigger problem, to be frank, is simply naiveté, indicated by America‘s statement: “Bishop Blaire explained he was worried that some national groups appear to be seizing on the issue and transforming the dispute over religious liberty into a political fight.” Of course it’s a political fight. Nearly everything is these days. And it was started by a man, President Obama, who is, by all accounts, thoroughly political in nearly every way. In fact, I think the POTUS believed that if the HHS mandate was positioned as being “political”, it would scare the bishops away. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened. And, thankfully, Bp. Blaire has clarified and reiterated his support of a united front against the unjust aims of the HHS mandate.

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 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.