From the editor’s desk
Obama needs to try again 26 May 2012
With his public stance on gay marriage, and now over rules requiring Catholic institutions to make contraceptives part of the compulsory health care they must provide, President Barack Obama risks driving religiously minded American voters into the arms of his enemies.
On gay marriage he could have kept quiet, knowing how neuralgic the issue was becoming, as he was not announcing policy, just his opinion. On contraceptives he seems to have yielded to a lobby that was eager to embarrass the leadership of the Catholic Church by imposing rules it would plainly find intolerable. For an intelligent man, this is not an intelligent way to do politics. Legal action on behalf of numerous Catholic bodies has now been launched against the Government. They are asking the courts to overturn a legal requirement or “mandate” that would oblige them to rewrite the health-care insurance cover that they offer their employees, and, in the case of academic institutions, their students. Their revised schemes would have to allow not just contraceptive services but also sterilisations, and also the so-called “morning-after” pill which is said to work by inducing an abortion. These are contrary to the Catholic Church’s official teaching.
Mr Obama has perhaps been misled into thinking that the widespread dissent to these teachings among Catholics means he can disregard the views of the bishops without having to pay an electoral penalty. But he also appears to have forgotten the fundamental purpose of his health-care reform, which was to provide health insurance for those not covered, not to fiddle with the terms of existing insurance schemes.
Catholics of all persuasions may rightly think he should leave them well alone. He has made matters worse by introducing an ill-drafted exemption clause, which appears to offer protection to religious bodies but does nothing of the sort. To claim exemption, religious organisations have to show that their purpose is the “inculcation of religious values” and that they “primarily” employ, or provide services for, individuals of the same religious persuasion. As the legal statement of claim puts it: “Thus, in order to safeguard their religious freedoms, religious employers must plead with government bureaucrats for a determination that they are sufficiently religious.” Furthermore, many of the Church’s charitable activities are offered to the public at large as a matter of principle and are not evangelistic as implied by the word “inculcate”; and they do not necessarily know the religious convictions of their employees. So this is not a workable compromise. Mr Obama needs to try again.
But nor does that justify the emotive rhetoric on both sides. Cardinal Timothy Dolan said President Obama was “strangling” the Catholic Church and described his policy as an attack on religious freedom and the separation of Church and State. He attacked Georgetown University’s invitation to the Health Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, a practising Catholic, to speak, saying: “When they would invite someone that is so dramatically at odds with one of the central tenets of the faith, that does bother us.” She duly made the speech – in support of the separation of Church and State, ironically – and was duly interrupted by protesters. But she also received prolonged applause. There are clearly two opinions among American Catholics on these issues. They urgently need to talk to each other.
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