UPDATED: Is Pres. Obama's compromise a solution that works for everyone?
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a press release that acknowledges the president's decision but refrains from making a definitive statement on it. The release calls the move "a first step in the right direction" but adds "the Conference continue to express concerns." In other words, we haven't heard the last of this debate.
President Barack Obama's announcement today regarding a compromise that will prevent Catholic institutions from directly paying for contraception in health care coverage was intended to quell the Catholic Church's uproar over the mandate. And while the president's remarks will undoubtedly be picked apart by all sides, the early reaction seems to indicate that church leaders are not entirely pleased.
In his statement today, President Obama explained that the one-year waiting period originally announced for religious institutions to implement the mandate was intended to provide time for finding a workable solution for those organizations (namely Catholic hospitals, universities, and possibly groups like Catholic Charities) that were not already going to be included in the exemption for religion-based employers. With the outcry from church leaders, the president put a rush on those efforts and tried to find a solution immediately, rather than waiting a whole year.
The bishops, it would seem, should be pleased that the administration put so much effort into working with them. As of this writing, they have yet to release any official statement about the new compromise (Catholic News Service says there was "no immediate reaction" from the bishops' conference).Meanwhile the Catholic Health Association, social justice lobbyists NETWORK, the Catholic Democrats, and the Democrats for Life of America have all applauded the White House's efforts.
But Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski told CNN that "[President Obama] hasn't really addressed our concerns. I think the only thing to do is... to take back the whole thing." And yesterday, the USCCB posted a statement from Bridgeport, Connecticut Bishop William Lori that seemingly rejected the idea of any type of compromise short of eliminating the mandate entirely.
That seems to go beyond the bishops' argument that their conscience would be violated if they were to pay for coverage of contraception, and instead suggests that the church would not want employees of Catholic institutions to have contraception coverage at all, no matter who pays for it. So if the bishops continue their objection to the mandate despite the president's new proposal, what exactly do they hope to gain?
The most likely response is a recognition of religious freedom. The president and his administration, through their efforts to work with the church on this matter, has shown a concern for protecting religious organizations' rights. But it has also shown a concern for protecting the rights of Americans of all religions and those who have no religion.
As long as Catholic institutions employ people who are not Catholic, it is important to consider the religious freedom and the consciences of those employees as well. As President Obama explained, the concern is that all people, no matter their religion or who they work for, will have equal access to certain services.
For a non-Catholic doctor or professor, this most likely isn't a concern, since they would probably be able to afford contraception should they choose or need to use it. But as the president indicates, the concern is for the "more than half of all women between the ages of 18-34 struggle to afford [contraception]." These are the cooks who serve lunch, the janitors who mop the floor, and the many other employees who take low-level jobs at Catholic institutions not because of the organization's religious beliefs, but because of their own need for a paycheck to help feed their family.
As Catholics, we need to be as concerned about their conscience and freedom as we are about our own. The compromise suggested by the president today is at least a step in the direction of finding a solution that ensures everyone's rights are protected.