Beliefs Politics

Catholic hospitals reject Obama’s birth control compromise

RNS photo courtesy Pete Souza / The White House

(RNS) In an unexpected blow to the Obama administration and a major boon for America's Catholic bishops, the influential Catholic Health Association on Friday (June 15) rejected White House proposals aimed at easing faith-based objections to the contraception mandate.

President Barack Obama talks with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose department is charged with implementing new rules that mandate employers to provide contraception coverage to employees.

President Barack Obama talks with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose department is charged with implementing new rules that mandate employers to provide contraception coverage to employees.

“The more we learn, the more it appears that the … approaches for both insured and self-insured plans would be unduly cumbersome and would be unlikely to adequately meet the religious liberty concerns of all of our members and other Church ministries,” Sister Carol Keehan and leaders of the CHA said in a five-page response to the Department of Health and Human Services.


Keehan, a crucial ally of the Obama administration in passing health care reform in 2009, had initially sounded a positive note about the administration's proposals in February and again in March that sought to address a wave of bad publicity by accommodating religious concerns about the mandate.

The mandate requires that all employee health insurance plans must provide no-cost birth control coverage to employees, and it grants what many consider an unacceptably narrow exemption for religious groups.

Keehan’s early openness to Obama’s compromise angered the Catholic bishops and social conservatives who have made defeat of the mandate – or expansion of the narrow religious exemption – a centerpiece of their public activism.

As the largest private health care provider in the nation, overseeing a network of hundreds of hospitals and medical facilities, the CHA is a critical player in health care issues. Many accused Keehan of showing the White House more deference than she did the hierarchy.

Keehan’s role in the controversy became further complicated by the recent Vatican moves against American nuns, but the latest twist also creates a serious political headache for the president as he heads into an increasingly tough election campaign.

The CHA said “it is imperative for the Administration to abandon the narrow definition of ‘religious employer’ and instead use an expanded definition to exempt from the contraceptive mandate not only churches, but also Catholic hospitals, health care organizations and other ministries of the Church.”

“To make this distinction is to create a false dichotomy between the Catholic Church and the ministries through which the Church lives out the teachings of Jesus Christ,” the CHA said.

“Catholic health care providers are participants in the healing ministry of Jesus Christ. Our mission and our ethical standards in health care are rooted in and inseparable from the Catholic Church and its teachings about the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.”

The CHA did not focus on objections to contraception coverage per se. Instead, it stressed that if the administration wants to go ahead with the plan to provide free birth control coverage for all employees through health insurance, then it should “find a way to provide and pay for these services directly without requiring any direct or indirect involvement of ‘religious employers,’ as broadly defined.”

Alternately, the CHA suggested that HHS could simply declare that an organization would be covered by a wider religious exemption if it “shares common religious bonds and convictions with a church.” That definition would exempt the Catholic hospitals and universities who would be most directly affected by the mandate.

The Health and Human Services Department did not respond to requests for comment. But an administration official, speaking on background, said the HHS “will consider all the comments and suggestions from interested stakeholders before finalizing and implementing policies that respect religious liberty and ensure millions of women have access to recommended preventive services.”

At their annual spring meeting this week in Atlanta, the Catholic bishops renewed their opposition to the mandate on religious liberty rather than doctrinal grounds. The next step in their lobbying effort will be a “Fortnight for Freedom” religious liberty campaign that launches this month and ends on July 4.


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • Why does the media keep using the word “compromise.” There were no real negotiatons. There was no agreed to solution. The headline on this story, to be accurate, should read:
    “Catholic hospitals reject Obama’s anti-Catholic Diktat (or fiat).”

  • Hi John: Thanks for the observation. There actually have been ongoing negotiations, in private and in public, and the Obama administration has offered two rounds of concessions, in February (after the initial unified Catholic objections) and again in March. Now many feel those don’t go far enough, and CHA has now joined that group. So I think it’s fair to say there has been a compromise — it just hasn’t been sufficient for (most) religious groups.

  • Tim Dolan and William Lori, following directions from Benedict in the Vatican, think they can direct the governmental affairs of this nation in the same despotic way Benedict orders all bishops to manipulate the Catholics in this country, the same way he thinks he can treat nuns as if they were little children. Catholics of the world, wake up and stand up! The time of the infallibility madness and the bossiness of the Vatican and its bishops is long past. People are no longer ignorant fools who can be duped by deceitful hierarchy. Benedict can have his smaller and more “orthodox” church. It is not holy, it is not catholic, and it is not apostolic. It is a tyrannical, evil, royal dynasty out of super-dark ages

  • …for (most) religious groups? The Roman Catholic Church is but one denomination among many within Christianity. I’m a priest in the Episcopal Church and I dare say we do not feel our religious freedom threatened by health care reform. Talk about twisting theology and misreading the Constitution. In fact I rather like the idea of reducing the rising cost of health care by insuring that only those who want a pregancy will have one. It’s only good stewardship and an invitation to responsible behavior. While the bishops make a lot of noise and are able to command obedience among those who serve under them, they do not speak for all religious groups. Considering the various ways their teaching credibility is compromised, perhaps their words and actions should not even be reported in the press.

  • All that is needed to realize the Catholic Church presumes it can determine government policy in this country–as it did in many countries, extremely sadly, in centuries past–is the brazen demand of the bishops to go b beyond even what they consider their own false “religious liberty” debate and dictate that our laws should allow any employer who holds a personal position against contraception or any other form of birth control to opt out of covering their employees because of their own claimed “religious,” “moral” beliefs.

    The dishonesty that reigns among the Catholic hierarchy is well known, to wit, their handling of the sexual abuse crisis. Employers would share that dishonesty to not cover employees for any forms of birth control or health control just to lie their way out of paying for employees’ health insurance.

    The Catholic hierarchy, from Benedict on down to every bishop, is not only wrong about our constitutional law, they still attempt to function as if they are supreme above every government in the world. They can’t even manage their own churches, their own clergy. That is precisely the way they all behaved in concert in hiding sex abuse by those clergy for centuries. And our weak justice system coddles them just because they claim they are religious. They hide behind religion. They really believe that their church law, canon law, negates every other legal system in the world.

  • First, the Catholic Church has shown better ability to govern itself than any other country. People keep pointing at their managerial failures as examples of a rotten structure, but fail to look at the failures of their own regimes. Really, do you believe that your local, state and federal goverment has less corruption than the Vatican? If so, you are deluded.

    Second, the first amendment reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The limitation is on the government, not the religion. For those that think that religion, especially the Catholic religion is simply a “personal” relation to a higher being, they are absolutely wrong. Catholics are part of a Church, ecclesia, community, that has expressed itself far beyond prayer. Catholic hospitals, among other institutions, like universities, exist as part of our community’s involvement in the world. Through charity, we try to find Christ in the rejected, sick and marginalized. They have existed long before the government had any interest in education or healthcare. Thus, they are protected from government intrusion by the First Amendment. If you want and change the Constitution, go ahead, but the present words are clear. The interest of the state cannot trump the free exercise of religion.

    Third, for Catholics, the Church is above any worldly government. It is headed by the vicar (substitute, agent) of Christ, from whom all authority flows. That there are Catholics who may not recognize this due to ignorance, apostasy or disobendience, does not change the official teachings of the Church.

  • Tom Downs – I might suggest that you will find great cause to be distressed by government intervention into religion. In the enactment of the HHS Mandate, there will be established a precedent in American history whereby government will set itself as an authority over Christian social programs, and thus be able to implement further regulations and dictates in the realm of social programs to all Christian denominations – even Episcopalians.

    While this matter at hand seems innocent enough to one who embraces contraception and abortion, I suggest that our government will find a way to offend a good Christian as yourself soon enough.

  • As a life-long Presbyterian, I stand completely with the Catholic bishops and the faithful who view the HHS mandate as an egregious assault on God-given freedoms that government, under the U.S. Constitution, is sworn to guarantee and protect. The applicable First Amendment begins: “Congress shall make no law…”; and since the “mandate” comes by virtue of powers delegated legislatively in the “Affordable Care Act”, Congress most certainly did make such a law, and in so doing violated the the Constitution, I believe. Moreover, to those who view this as a Catholic issue, or a political issue, or a ‘woman’ issue are, to say the least, myopic. If you don’t believe that a government that gets away with abridging one freedom won’t try to encroach on others, you do not know much history. You do not even know much of American history in the last eighty years. Recall the words of Rev. Martin Niemoller. You can find them here:

  • Of course, regulating a business like a hospital is not the same as regulating religion. The members of the CHA have billions of dollars in revenue each year and are not providing “charity” care. They are businesses where you literally will see no Catholic presence beyond a crucifix slapped on the wall in the entry way. There are no sacrements taking place, few masses. You will so few if any nuns or priests, but instead lots of highly paid secular administrators and providers.

  • LRC:
    St. Augustine in his City of God assured the Roman Empire that Christians would ever be good citizen and contribute to the welfare of the state. He felt the need to do this because some throught our religion would be a threat to the stability of the state and therefore must be rooted out. It’s and argument worth remembering as Christianity once again faces the possibility of becoming a minority religion. The “nones” are the fasted growing group in American today.
    Rail against the Affordable Care Act as much as you want. But you should also remember that we are already compelled to interact with the government in many ways. Some communities already assess property taxes on us. (I’m afraid more of this will be coming… especially as we make ourselves partisan players in the political sphere.) We comply with all sorts of laws from building codes to employment practices. We pay incorporation fees and local assessments for this and that. To offer a soup kitchen we had to comply with local health codes. The Patriot Act allows hospitals to limit my visits to sick parishioners. The state interferrs with our ministry in all sorts of ways, ways we often would just as soon not have to acccomodate. Still I side with St. Augustine and try to be a good useful citizen while living my Christian ministry.

  • Perhaps it is time to cease rendering unto Caesar. Where would you draw the line, Tom, eh?

  • If the catholic hospitals and universities cannot and will not abide by the law that requires women be treated equally with men in terms of service and benefits provided, then the US govenment needs to just terminated these entities ability to access taxpayer money for the Medicare and Medicaide services. Then, there won’t be a problem with regard to religious beliefs and women’s rights to equal treatment under the law.

  • Tom:
    Yes, and early Christians wouldn’t have to go to martyrdom had they just celebrated a sacrifice to the Emperor. It would have been so easy: “Just celebrate the silly sacrifice! You don’t even have to believe it!”

    This is another instance of the Emperor Julian the Apostate. We have gone through a worse mess before. The difference is, that we have some influence in the way we govern ourselves, so it is our duty to apply it.

    “Erect many hostels, one in each city, in order that strangers may enjoy my kindness, not only those of our own faith but also of others whosoever is in want of money. I have just been devising a plan by which you will be able to get supplies. For I have ordered that every year throughout all Galatia 30,000 modii of grain and 60,000 pints of wine shall be provided. The fifth part of these I order to be expended on the poor who serve the priests, and the rest must be distributed from me to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us. Teach also those who profess the Greek religion to contribute to such services, and the villages of the Greek religion to offer the first-fruits to the gods. Accustom those of the Greek religion to such benevolence, teaching them that this has been our work from ancient times.”

  • I understand that some Catholics now think they and their religion are victims of the administration’s implementation of the health care law and that the law forces employers to act contrary to their consciences. I think, though, that they have been duped by their bishops and are being used to serve the bishops’ rather ordinary political aims.

    Notwithstanding the bishops’ arm waving about religious liberty, the health care law does not force employers to act contrary to their consciences. Contrary to bishops’ assertions and the widespread belief of those who trustingly accept their claims, the law does no such thing.

    Many initially worked themselves into a lather with the false idea that the law forces employers to provide their employees with health care plans offering services the employers consider immoral. The fact is that employers have the option of not providing any such plans and instead simply paying assessments to the government (which, by the way, would generally amount to far less than the cost of health plans). Unless one supposes that the employers’ religion forbids payments of money to the government (all of us should enjoy such a religion), then the law’s requirement to pay assessments does not compel those employers to act contrary to their beliefs. Problem solved. Solved–unless an employer really aims not just to avoid a moral bind, but rather to control his employees’ health plan choices so they conform to the employer’s religious beliefs rather than the law, and avoid paying the assessments that otherwise would be owed. For that, an employer would need an exemption from the law.

    Indeed, some have continued clamoring for such an exemption, complaining that by paying assessments to the government they would indirectly be paying for the very things they opposed. They seemingly missed that that is not a moral dilemma justifying an exemption to avoid being forced to act contrary to one’s beliefs, but rather is a gripe common to many taxpayers–who don’t much like paying taxes and who object to this or that action the government may take with the benefit of “their” tax dollars. Should each of us be exempted from paying our taxes so we aren’t thereby “forced” to pay for making war, providing health care, teaching evolution, or whatever else each of us may consider wrong or even immoral? If each of us could opt out of this or that law or tax with the excuse that our religion requires or allows it, the government and the rule of law could hardly operate.

    In any event, those complaining made enough of a stink that the government relented and announced that religious employers would be free to provide health plans with provisions to their liking (yay!) and not be required to pay the assessments otherwise required (yay!). Problem solved–again, even more.

    Nonetheless, some continue to complain, fretting that somehow the services they dislike will get paid for and somehow they will be complicit in that. They argue that if insurers or employees pay for such services, those costs will somehow, someday be passed on to the employers in the form of demands for higher insurance premiums or higher wages. They evidently believe that when they spend a dollar and it thus becomes the property of others, they nonetheless should have some say in how others later spend that dollar. One can only wonder how it would work if all of us could tag “our” dollars this way and control their subsequent use.

    The bishops are coming across more and more as just another special interest group with a big lobbying operation and a big budget—one, moreover, that is not above stretching the truth.

  • Tom Downs:

    Your point is well taken. I can clearly see in Saint Augustine’s writings his endorsement of contraception and abortion; as you seem to imply by using his excellence to advance your argument.

    In truth, my ignorance missed your point, and your intelligence made you miss mine.