Battle lines drawn

Archbishop Naumann pans president’s ‘fix’


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — On Feb. 10, President Barack Obama offered a policy change to a birth control mandate in his health care reform plan.Some have called the policy change a compromise, while others called it an accommodation.

The bishops called it unacceptable.

“We were not consulted in advance,” said the bishops in a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops statement. “Today’s proposal continues . . . to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their deeply held convictions.”

Among the bishops who vigorously oppose the mandate is Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. He gave The Leaven an opportunity to sit down with him and have a conversation about his concerns about the mandate.

Q. You said in your initial reaction to President Obama’s Feb. 10 press conference that his announcement gave you “a glimmer of hope.” Has your assessment changed?

A. When I said glimmer of hope, I meant the glimmer was that the president was saying what had been promulgated on Jan. 20 wasn’t necessarily the final decision. He seemed to understand, at least, [that] what had been proposed was not acceptable. As I understand it, and we still don’t have adequate details on what the president is actually proposing, but from what I understand of his so-called accommodation, it isn’t adequate.

Q. It still has problems?

A. It has numerous problems, the most fundamental problem being that the insurance providers for religious institutions would be required to provide these so-called services. That seems to be [what others] have called an “accounting gimmick,” because it’s impossible not to believe that the insur- ance providers are going to pass this cost back to their clients, the church. There is no such thing as free services. Someone has to pay for these. The idea that so long as the insurance company is the one paying for it, but we’re being mandated to purchase insurance that provides this, it’s still a problem. I don’t think the accommodation is really an accommodation.

Q. The concerns about freedom of religion and conscience remain?

A. Right now, this is still an attack on freedom of conscience. It doesn’t do anything for entities that would be insured by a self-insurance program as we are here at the archdiocese. We are our own insurance carrier, so this doesn’t do anything in those circumstances. In other circumstances, it creates an appearance of something that is different, but there is no substantive difference.

It also does nothing to protect individuals who object because of conscience. In effect, it would exclude any practicing Catholic [from] being involved in health insurance, because they’ll have to provide these so-called preventive services.

Q. Do you see the mandate as ideologically driven?

A. I think it’s a very serious assumption that underlies these policies. . . . women’s fertility and pregnancy are treated as a disease.

If we permit the president to define abortifacients, contraceptives and sterilizations as preventive medicine, the question is: What is the disease they’re trying to prevent? It seems clear that the disease is pregnancy and women’s fertility. So the next question is: What happens if the preventive medicine isn’t effective? What’s the cure for the dis- ease? I think the answer to that question is abortion. So the whole ideology beneath this is very troubling.

Q. The bishops speaking on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops say that any problems the mandate had before the president’s announcement remain after. Do you concur with your fellow bishops?

A. What were we trying to solve with health care reform? The president evidently thinks the major problem is that there isn’t enough contraception being provided to people, and he’s willing to risk all of health care reform for this. I don’t think most people believe, particularly with the state of our economy and our great debt, that the most important thing for the United States to be doing at this time is to make sure ev- eryone has free contraceptives. It’s just baffling the president would give it this kind of importance.

Q. Also, is there some confusion over who speaks for Catholics?

A. There’s only one group that is empowered to speak for the church. . . . The bishops are the teachers.

Q. Are the bishops themselves unified in this matter?

A. My perception is that the bishops are very unified. I think the bishops, as a body, really appreciate the great risk this is to our religious liberty and freedom, as well as the protection of conscience.

The bishops of the United States objected to the health care reform as it was passed by Congress and signed by the president, because it failed in two areas: to have clear language prohibiting abortion and to have any protections for conscience. Throughout the process, the bishops of the United States called for the inclusion of those clear statements. The Congress failed to do that — much at the president’s bidding. I think what has happened just shows how accurate were those concerns.

Q. Some have suggested that the bishops should accept the president’s proposal, because it might be the best deal they can get.

A. This isn’t about making deals or addressing perceptions. Obviously, it’s important to try to convince the wider public of the importance of this. This is about providing moral guidance to our Catholic people and institutions. [The bishops] have to evaluate it on the moral reality, not it people think we’ve won or lost.

This isn’t about the bishops looking good or bad. This is about speaking the truth for our people and guiding them in this very important moral area.

Q. Some have quoted a study saying most Catholics have used contraception, implying that the mandate has broad support.

A. The study they’re quoting is from the Guttmacher Institute, which is the research arm of Planned Parenthood. I think you have to realize what the source is.

Again, even people within the church or outside the church who do not agree with our moral view on contraception still do not believe that [people] should be coerced by the federal government to do something against their conscience.

I think this goes back to the earlier discussion. Contraception is not health care. It’s a lifestyle choice. This is not essential health care. This is not treating diseases. I think people are smart enough to understand what’s at stake here.

It’s not fundamentally [an issue of] do we believe in abortion, do we believe in contraception, but do we believe the government can force individuals and institutions to violate their conscience? This has been the center of the objection. Can the government force individuals and institutions to purchase something that goes against their conscience, and is that what America is to be about?

Q. One columnist, Nicholas Kristof, asked if our society should make accommodations across a range of faiths. For example, what if organizations affiliated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses insisted on health insurance that did not cover blood transfusions? His question seems to be how far should we accommodate people in a pluralistic society?

A. It begs the question, which is, “Ought the government really be the one to provide health care,” because that’s where you get into this problem. Perhaps what they’re demonstrating is there is no way for the government to provide this and protect religious freedom and conscience rights, and therefore we ought to be looking to a free market solution to the health care problem.

Historically, the United States has accommodated religious diversity and hasn’t forced people of faith to do things against their conscience.

Q. What should the laity do?

A. I think the laity should express to the president and their elected representatives their desire for the protection of religious liberty and conscience.

The Congress could solve this problem; there are pieces of legislation. The problem is you have a president who is likely to veto any genuine solution, so now the Congress is going to have to have a two-thirds majority to solve this. But the Congress created the problem. They empowered the president to be able to make these decisions that failed in the thousands of pages of the health care reform act. With all the words and ink spilled over it, they couldn’t find enough time to specify the conscience rights for Americans.

If we’re going to have government- controlled health care, these things have to be clearly articulated and these protections have to be built into the law. We can’t trust the administration — or any future administration to interpret these.

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