Coming Attractions: The White House, Catholic Bishops And How To Discuss The Contraception Mandate

By Jon Hurdle

Religion News Service

(RNS) For weeks, Catholic leaders and politicians have tangled over the administration’s contraception mandate. Pope Francis made it a top priority in his first week, and the Vatican weighed in with three statements pointing out how deeply it opposes the requirement and how it is provoked by sexism and an unjust law.

But the issue won’t be settled until next year, when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, a battle pitting religious objectors against the government.

Meanwhile, the policy is in the courts, with both sides asking for written briefings from the administration. Catholic bishops and other religious dissenters need a detailed picture of the law and can ask many questions.

Such meetings have become regular occurrences at the White House, and only two bishops attended a recent session: Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Catholic leaders from 20 states dropped in for a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden last month.

But even this meeting — never previously known about — could be precarious. Two years ago, some Catholic leaders were unnerved by Biden’s first meeting with Pope Francis. In that meeting, the two men spent three hours in a chamber of the Apostolic Palace talking about the Vatican’s outrage over abuses and scandals in the church.

For Catholics who worry about influence, the Catholic bishops are divided. Those in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops feel more comfortable with this administration, taking a wait-and-see approach to the contraception mandate. They focus more on assisting U.S. immigration reform and on changing and holding accountable today’s politicians in the church, rather than staking out positions on how bishops should communicate with this administration.

Their international counterparts, on the other hand, take a more hard-nosed view. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia warned last month in an opinion piece that his church had lost many of its credibility in recent decades as it catered to the rich and wealthy instead of the poor.

The president of the Vatican’s Curia, Cardinal Peter Turkson, said recently that Catholics need to get used to hearing bishops say, “They say this, but really they say that,” about legislation.

At the bishops’ meeting this week, the policy remained an issue on the ground. The bishops discussed potential communication channels with the administration, including talking directly to Vice President Biden.

The bishops emphasized that they do not agree with every decision of the administration, and expressed regret for losing a gun control measure.

But overall, they appeared to be studying Obama’s initiatives with mild concern. Some bishops expressed a wish that Catholic institutions would not be compelled to provide for employees free contraception but are free to do so if their programs violate their religious principles.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, said he can see no way to move forward in these matters.

“My sense is that we are becoming prisoners of our convictions,” he said.

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