There has been a huge hue and cry in the Catholic blogosphere recently in reference to the White House’s recent statement that there will be no broadening of the conscience clause in the Health Care reform bill. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and many other religious organizations in America have been lobbying for this broadening since the bill was passed, and this month, three days before the National March for life in Washington, the White House stated that “This group (Faith based institutions) will ultimately have to offer female employees cost-free contraception, just like others across the country.”
This was not at all what those faith based institutions were hoping for. In a somewhat insulting nod to these organizations, the White House is allowing them an additional year to comply. This is not an acknowledgement of the conscience issue, but to allow more time for administrative changes that will need to be made. “We know that a lot of these organizations may be large organizations, there are approval processes that require the approval of boards,” an administration official told reporters on a call this afternoon. “The transitional period responds to those concerns.”
Unfortunately, these were never actually concerns. This is not a question of “an approval process” as if the implication were that “boards” just need enough time to argue about it before finally bowing to the mandate of Washington.
The uproar has been considerable, though not as widespread as the response to the SOPA bill. Catholic bloggers and bishops, not-for-profit organizations and media personalities have been firing back. I cannot say anything that they have not already said.
I am interested, though, in the Administration’s point of view. What is the end game here? It was a bold strategy, not only the decision to ignore the principles of the largest religious body on the planet, but to drop the ultimatum three days before the largest gathering of Catholics in one place in America. Coincidence? I’ll just say, competent strategists don’t allow coincidences like that. If the timing was not taken into account it was sheer incompetence. If it was, then what on earth was the strategy?
You see, only an idiot goes into battle without knowing his enemy. While there are varying levels of competence in Washington, I’m not ready to believe that the architects of this bill are idiots. They went into battle, and they had to know how the Catholics were going to react. This isn’t an administrative policy we are talking about here, this is a matter of moral principle. The Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception is a matter of history, and She has been before now the single voice in the world condemning the contraceptive culture. We made it through the 60’s without changing that for crying out loud. There is no excuse for ignorance about the Church’s position on this topic. Therefore, there is no possibility of compromise. We literally cannot give in to this law. It would be like forcing Jewish businesses to sell Kosher Bacon.
So I have no choice but to believe that at the very least the Administration knew that there was going to be an uproar. Perhaps they underestimated how rapid and loud it would be, but they took it into account in the decision making process. What part did it play?
I can think of two possible strategies that account for this blatant aggression. The first, and I think the most likely, is ideological. Perhaps the President and his advisors really believe that contraception and abortion are so obviously mainstream healthcare, that anyone who does not provide them shouldn’t be in healthcare anyway. An analogy would be someone who did not believe in prescribing antibiotics and refused to do so on moral grounds. Such a person has a right to believe that, but no hospital in America would hire them. They would not be allowed to practice as a physician, and rightly so. I think it is possible that Obama and his cronies are so in love with the idea of contraception that they have deluded themselves into thinking that contraceptives are on the same level as antibiotics and other routine, life-saving interventions. The rhetoric of “reproductive rights” might well have tricked its authors.
If this is the case then the move to engage in open warfare, as it were, was seen as a calculated risk. They think they are right to force people to take care of their employee’s health and welfare (their view), and they are counting on popular support and even more popular apathy to wear down religious resistance over time. In this scenario they expect to hunker down, weather the storm and keep up an endless stream of propaganda. It will blow over eventually and they will get their way.
The second scenario is more sinister, and I think less likely. In this scenario the motives are not ideological but pragmatic. They don’t give a damn about reproductive rights or contraception or any of that. What they do want is power. The Catholic Church, by Her nature, is always a possible threat to the power of the State, because She claims divine authority to resist laws it deems unjust. In this view the goal is to hamper the freedoms of this institution, consolidating power for the State. What you need for that is to do two things, simultaneously: First, you need to isolate and weaken the institution’s base of support among the population. Second, you need to create the opportunity to take action against that institution in such a way that it will be perceived as legitimate. To accomplish these you need an issue which will be at the same time odious to the institution in question and widely popular among the rest of the population.
So in this scenario this particular issue is not the issue. Instead it is simply a weapon. The goal is to draw intense, outspoken, and hopefully hot-headed or even inflammatory response from the Church, which can then be construed as backward, selfish and intolerant. The Church is forcing her beliefs on employees who do not even share the same beliefs! The hope then is that when the inevitable confrontation occurs, whether the Catholic institutions try to continue operating in defiance of the law, or close their doors, any government action can be presented as preventing the Church from imposing Her ideas on other people. No one will come to our aid in any effective way.
I don’t think this is the scenario, because it means that the Administration thinks the Church is weak enough that they can get away with it. You don’t deliberately provoke an all-out power struggle until you are certain you have the tactical advantage. I don’t think we are at that stage yet. In fact, if anything can bring out a little fight in us, this is it. But in the short term, motives matter very little. In either scenario the crux of the matter remains the same. The side that sways the people will win, and if Obama has proved adept at anything, it is influencing the people. People will point to his crashing polls, but the mystery is not that they have crashed so far, but that they have not bottomed out. The man can spin a yarn, and people listen. This is the most dangerous quality he possesses and we must not underestimate it.
In any revolution or counter-revolution, the propaganda war is the real war. The human terrain is the only terrain that matters.