The bishops have fiercely opposed one element of Mr Obama’s health-care reforms, the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that forces Catholic institutions to provide contraceptive cover for employees as part of those reforms. At its plenary meeting in Baltimore the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was left to seek a way forward between accommodation with the administration on the one hand, and outright opposition on the other.
The salt in the wound was the fact that Catholics backed Mr Obama by 50 per cent to 48 per cent, and among mostly Catholic Latinos, Mr Obama took 74 per cent of the vote. Same-sex marriage plans were also passed in Maine, Maryland and Washington while Minnesota voters rejected a ban.
The bishops were expected to address their relations with the Obama administration in executive session on Wednesday, especially regarding the HHS contraception mandate. Many want to mount a new effort to reach an agreement with the White House that would expand the limited exemption from the mandate for religious institutions. This would involve abandoning the fight to kill the mandate entirely by allowing all employers, including secular, for-profit businesses, an exemption on conscience grounds. The mandate is also set to encounter a number of legal challenges that could help the bishops’ cause.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the ad hoc committee on religious liberty, said that the bishops have “always maintained our openness to dialogue” with the administration. “Currently the HHS mandate is on the books,” said Archbishop Lori. “That’s what we actually concretely have to deal with now.”
The mollified tone was not universal. “The Catholic Church is not going to back down,” said Denver auxiliary Bishop James Conley last week. “We are never going to compromise our principles. We will defy it and face the consequences.” Bishop Conley becomes the new bishop of the Lincoln Diocese on 20 November.
In a further sign of dispute, a draft document on poverty was widely criticised for its failure to employ traditional church teachings on social justice. Some bishops faulted the document for failing to champion the rights of labour, and others worried that it did not adequately address the growing income inequality in the US. The document was voted down by a vote of 134-85, short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage, marking a rare instance of a document drafted by a committee rejected by the entire body of bishops.
In his presidential address, Cardinal Timothy Dolan called for a renewed emphasis on confession and conversion. “The Sacrament of Reconciliation evangelises the evangelisers,” he told the bishops, “If we want the New Evangelisation to work, it starts on our knees.”
Meanwhile Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, chairman of the bishops’ ad hoc Committee on the Defense of Marriage, stated that the Church must continue to fight against proposals to legalise same-sex marriage. “This is not the time to give up the fight,” he said.