The Liberal Catholic Complaint

You have to figure nobody was much happier than E.J. Dionne when the Obama administration released a “compromise” on its insurance coverage mandate for contraceptive services that Sr. Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, could support. After all, the main argument made in E.J.’s much-discussed January 29 column blasting the administration for its original wording of the mandate was that it had thrown progressive Catholic allies like Keehan “under the bus.”

His latest column, however, combines palpable relief at the “compromise” with a churlish, told-you-so expression of resentment at the administration and at non-Catholic liberals for failing to “get it” in the first place:

Many of us [Catholic liberals] agreed that broad contraception coverage was, as a general matter, a good thing, and we shared their concern for women’s rights. But we were troubled that some with whom we usually agree seemed to relish a fight with the church and defined any effort to accommodate its anxieties as “selling out.”

As a young politician put it in 2006, “There are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word ‘Christian’ describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.”

Barack Obama, who spoke those words, finally figured out that a sensible compromise on contraception was far better than a running cultural and religious war. The administration would do well not to lose track of that guy again.

I’ve always admired E.J. Dionne, not simply as a journalist but as an exceptionally decent man. But this time he’s just off-base.

I understand his frustration at being under constant attack from co-religionists who think he’s a “cafeteria Catholic” sellout and from political allies who think–or more to the point, E.J. suspects they think–he’s a fool in the grip of a medieval delusion. I feel enough of this myself on occasion to get it, though as a liberal Protestant, I do not have the burden of feeling pressure from or complicity with any formal hierarchy.

But nobody in the Obama administration needs to apologize to anyone for proposing–via its Catholic Secretary of Health and Human Services, and making a formal exception explicitly designed for Catholics–a simple, logical policy making it clear contraceptives were to be covered as a medically recognized preventive health care service. The idea that this represented some sort of Bismarckian kulturkampf attack on Catholicism makes sense only if you accept the premise that “religious liberty” gives the Bishops some sort of broad zone of immunity–a kind of unwritten concordat–against any public policies that it might find inimical to its teachings (in this case, teachings that are being almost universally disregarded by their own flocks).

Moreover, much as I like E.J. Dionne, none of the advocates for reproductive rights who responded in kind to the Bishops’ hysterical rhetoric on this mandate need to apologize to him for putting him in an uncomfortable position. Should the sensibilities of liberal Catholic political elites matter more to non-Catholic liberals than the actual impact of these policies in question on the lives of millions of American women, Catholics included? I’d say that carries the obligations of solidarity too far.

Catholic liberals are a tough breed who deserve great respect, particularly when their religious leaders betray their best traditions and confirm their detractors’ worst insults. But while “pluralism” depends on mutual respect, it does not require deference to other people’s private authority figures. The attitude of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops towards contraception is a constant problem for U.S. Catholic lay people, though one they manage to handle just fine most of the time. Frankly, it’s only a problem for the rest of us if we allow it to be, and we shouldn’t.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.