Shutting down the facts: Bishops unfairly attacked

    At this writing the impasse that has shut down most federal government operations is in its 10th day, with each major party blaming the other for this terrible situation.
    Recently a pro-abortion web site, called RH Reality Check (“RH” for “Reproductive Health”), created a brief flurry of commentary by claiming to find the real culprits: the Catholic bishops!
    The group noticed that the bishops’ conference wrote to House and Senate members the week before the shutdown, once again asking them to include the policy of the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (HR 940, S. 1204) in “must-pass” legislation like the Continuing Resolution or debt limit bill.
    The bishops have been making similar requests for many months, during which the administration’s mandate for including contraceptives, female sterilization, and some abortifacient drugs in almost all health plans has moved toward implementation. Now a final rule has been issued, making little change in an “accommodation” that gives no adequate relief to faith-based charitable and educational institutions – and it will be imposed on these organizations beginning Jan. 1.
    Hence this final plea that Congress address the rule’s threat to religious liberty and freedom of conscience before the year is out.
    RH Reality Check has never liked Catholics. Last year its senior legal analyst wrote that “the Catholic Church is one of the few, if not the only religion that is fundamentally antithetical to any notion of women’s reproductive health, freedom, and justice.” But this time it made two giant leaps: (1) If the bishops care about this issue, they must not care about anything else in the funding bills, and (2) they must be demanding that the government shut down if they can’t get their way.
    Of course, the bishops’ letter said nothing of the kind.  And a second letter from the bishops’ conference urged Congress to serve the basic needs of the poor and vulnerable in its funding decisions and to avoid a shutdown, as it managed to do in 2011.  There was never any threat to oppose these bills, much less to shut down the government.
    The bishops’ critics apparently assume that conscience protection would kill any funding bill of which it is a part. But that’s quite a claim.  Congress has routinely been approving conscience clauses as part of its funding bills for many years – including a broad religious exemption from the contraceptive mandate in federal employees’ health plans.
    And on its own merits, the conscience bill the bishops now support would handily pass the House, and last year received 48 votes in the Senate – just short of a majority.
    The current congressional impasse is, in part, over more sweeping proposals to delay or “defund” the entire health care reform act – proposals the bishops have not supported, instead seeking to address specific problems that prevent many people from embracing the benefits of expanded health coverage in good conscience.
    Expanding access to health care for those in need, while respecting everyone’s moral and religious convictions, is a very sensible middle ground – the kind of compromise that might help get government moving again, if enough members of Congress listen. So sensible, it seems, that the anti-Catholic crowd has to make up bogus stories to try to derail it.
    Richard Doerflinger is associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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