Catholic Pundit and Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne published a piece on May 21st that begs rebuttal. This was published in the first days following the initiation of litigation against the Obama Administration’s decision to compel Catholic Organizations to violate their consciences and the Administration’s policy to decide who is “religious enough” for an exemption. My comments are in bold.

“The main goal of the mandate is not, as HHS claimed, to protect women’s health. It is rather a move to conscript religious organizations into a political agenda, forcing them to facilitate and fund services that violate their beliefs, within their own institutions.” – Mary Ann Glendon

The original piece is here.

Did the Catholic organizations have to sue over the health care mandate?

The federal lawsuits filed Monday by Catholic institutions against the contraception mandate under the health care law are not surprising, but they are unfortunate. The Bishops’ Conference and many — though not all — Catholic organizations are acting as if the Obama Administration had never backed down from its original, broad mandate and had never offered to negotiate.

The “Mandate” is the law of the land, effective February 1, 2012 and enforceable August 1, 2012. One does not “negotiate” a law one obeys or litigates. Per Cardinal Dolan, the Administration has repeatedly misled the USCCB regarding conscience protection and exemptions.  The Administration has offered a one year extension to determine a method of compliance – but this is the law – the original mandate, without any accommodation.

This is the largest religious lawsuit in the history of western civilization – 43 litigants in 12 courts directly representing over 20 million Catholics and indirectly representing close to 40 million Catholics. It could easily be the largest class action in decades. It is big news.

But the administration, responding to a broadly united Catholic community, did offer a compromise and has since shown a willingness to try to accommodate many of the concerns of Catholic and other religious institutions. Now the Catholic community is split because many of us who initially backed the bishops cannot understand why they did not respond to the administration’s olive branch. Many bishops seem to want this fight.

While Obama supporters (including some Catholics) will contend that this is partisan politics, it isn’t — except insofar as the Administration has made it so. It was the Administration that refused to countenance Catholic concerns before and after the mandate was issued. It was the Administration whose apologists (including Secretary Sebelius – a Catholic who is refused Holy Communion by her Bishop) bent every effort to turn what was clearly a religious-freedom issue into a “War on Women.” It has been the Administration and its Senate allies, like Majority Leader Harry Reid, and House Minority Leader Pelosi who have refused to enter into any sort of serious discussion aimed at mitigating Catholic concerns. It is the Administration that seems willing to drive the Catholic Church out of health care, education, and social services if that is what is required to enforce the Administration’s notions of “reproductive health” and “reproductive choice.”

There is certainly a case to pushing the administration to rewrite the definition of religious organizations under the health care regulations, but no reason to treat President Obama as an enemy of religious freedom. The bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign is looking more and more like a direct intervention in this fall’s elections.

If the Administration pays a price for this in November, it will have no one to blame except itself. They created the politics of it. Remember, the USCCB is hardly a GOP enclave it is my personal experience that they are largely progressive and Democratic leaning.  The bishops know that rights lost are lost for CENTURIES and Exhibit A is England where until this very year, Catholics could not marry into the Royal Family or serve in elected office or serve as officers in the Army. So a fear of Catholic oppression in western civilization is not entirely unfounded. This mandate, which is really pennies of healthcare dollars, is a direct affront to the Church. The mandate is totally unnecessary and fiscally saves little.

All Catholic citizen (and the bishops are citizens too) have a right and a responsibility to form and inform the public. Catholics have a right and a responsibility defend themselves – as a Church and as a person.   To compel a person to act against his conscience is a gigantic sin and an affront to all that is free.

A well educated and informed electorate is always good for the culture. A Catholic electorate that votes with a mindset towards eternity – a Catholic mindset – creates a better culture. It is hardly an intervention into the fall elections it is preaching the Gospel in the present era.

As my friends at Commonweal, the progressive Catholic magazine, noted in an important editorial: “This initiative is being launched during an election year in which one party has assumed the mantle of faith and charges the other with attacking religion. The bishops need to do much more to prevent their national campaign from becoming a not-very-covert rallying point for the Republican Party and its candidates. If that happens, it is the church and the cause of religious freedom that will suffer.” Commonweal said there is something “hyperbolic” about how the bishops are framing their campaign, and I see this lawsuit as one aspect of that.

All we want is the ability to practice our faith freely without cooperating in evil, if we need to remove a few people from D.C. to do it, so be it. Again we did not pick this fight.

Anyone who is remotely familiar with the USCCB knows a few things – (1) the USCCB taken as a whole leans mostly to the left. (2) The USCCB has favored universal healthcare since the 1920’s so it is nothing new (3) The Catholic (dare I say universal Christian) teaching on the objective evil of contraception predates the Gospel. (4) We have to remember too (since this is a religious issue) that we are speaking of mortal sin here. It is a mortal sin to artificially contracept, it is a mortal sin to fornicate and it is a mortal sin to facilitate one or the other.

The time for negation has passed, but if the Administration dropped the mandate, the litigation would end.

What is overlooked are the following: Healthcare is a “zero-sum” game and now that it is politicized via the Affordable Care Act, the lobbies will decide the distribution of monies. Money paid for contraception is money NOT given to ADHD kids, heart disease rehab, orthopedic care, long term care or mental illness.  So, if you are an effective lobby like breast cancer and HIV, you will get money. If you are an ineffective lobby, say mental illness – you get nothing (except homelessness or jail).

It’s worth noting that the Catholic Health Association, which backed Obama’s compromise, has not joined this suit. Michael Rodgers, the CHA’s senior vice president for public affairs and advocacy, said in an interview that the CHA “was not made aware that the lawsuits were being filed now.” He added that the group is working with the administration to “broaden the exemption by broadening the definition of what a religious institution is.” I wish the bishops and others involved in these lawsuits had given the path of negotiation more time before going to court.

CHA is a lobbying and educational group with an ambiguous mission. They HARDLY represent many Catholics if any at all. Ask a dozen Catholics – life long ones at that – if they ever heard of CHA and ask the same number if they ever hear of Catholic Charities (hardly a GOP operative group), Cardinal Dolan or any number of Catholic Schools. Ask them if they ever heard of Notre Dame; who awarded the President and honorary degree in 2009 and sued him in 2011.

At the end of the day, this is not just a Catholic issue. Under the government’s new rules, religious organizations are free to serve the public only if they fulfill the government’s requirement to provide abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization. Organizations whose beliefs differ from this government-mandated orthodoxy have two options if they want to continue their mission of serving the public: abandon any belief that the government does not sanction, or uphold that belief and incur crippling fines. This issue should matter to anyone who believes there is room in the public square for people of all faiths — not just those faiths that pass some government test.

It is the ripest circumstance for civil disobedience since MLK, maybe even more so. Freedom of conscience, which is the basis of freedom of religion, is at least equal to and may even trump the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

At the end of the day what will occur if unabated will be formal Christian Schism – an essay I am completing as we speak. There will be Churches approved and recognized by the Government and Churches that are not. EJ Dionne will be in one and me in the other.