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DIONNE: Obama's peace offering to Catholic bishiops

  • This artwork by Donna Grethen relates to the Catholic Church and contraception.

America's Big Religious War ended on Friday. Or at least it ought to.

A little more than a year ago, the Obama administration set off a bitter and unnecessary clash with the Roman Catholic Church over rules mandating broad contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The Department of Health and Human Services' announcement of new regulations is a clear statement that President Barack Obama never wanted this fight.

The decision ought to be taken by the nation's Catholic bishops as a victory, because it is. Many in their ranks, including some of the country's most prominent prelates, are inclined to do just that — even if the most conservative bishops seem to want to keep the battle raging.

But more importantly, the final Health and Human Services rules are the product of a genuine and heartfelt struggle over the meaning of religious liberty in a pluralistic society. The contraception dispute was difficult because legitimate claims and interests were in conflict.

The vast majority of Americans believe that health insurance should cover contraception. At the same time, the Catholic Church has a theological objection to contraception, even if most Catholics (including regular churchgoers) disagree with its position. The church insisted that its vast array of charitable, educational and medical institutions should be exempt from the contraception requirement.

The church made a mistake in arguing its case on the grounds of "religious liberty." By inflating their legitimate desire for accommodation into a liberty claim, the bishops implied that the freedom not to pay for birth control rose to the same level, as say, the freedoms to worship or to preach the faith. This led to wild rhetorical excesses, including a comparison of Obama to Hitler and Stalin by one bishop, and an analogy between the president's approach and the Soviet constitution by another.

But the church had good reason to object to the narrowness of the Health and Human Services' original definition of what constituted a religious organization entitled to exemptions from the contraception requirement. If a religious organization did not have "the inculcation of religious values" as its purpose and did not primarily employ or serve those who shared the faith, it got no exclusion at all.

The problem is that the vast charitable work done by religious organizations to help millions, regardless of their faith, is manifestly inspired by religion. The church could not abide the implicit reduction of its role merely to private expressions of faith. Don't most Americans devoutly wish that religious people will be moved by their beliefs to works of charity and justice?

The Health and Human Services rules announced Friday scrapped this offensive definition in favor of long-established language in the IRS code. In an interview, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius showed a becoming humility, and it would be nice if this encouraged the same among her critics. However defensible the original rules might have been, she said, "they really caused more anxiety and conflict than was appropriate."

"What we've learned," she said, "is that there are issues to balance in this area. There were issues of religious freedom on two sides of the ledger" — the freedom of the religious institutions and the freedom of their employees who might not share their objections to contraception.


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