The fight for the Catholic vote is underway and Republicans are latching unto the issue of "religious freedom" as a centerpiece of that fight. They are being aided by the U.S. Catholic bishops who in a bid for relevance said at their Baltimore fall meeting that religious liberty was under attack. This Sunday, bishops around the country will read pastoral letters about the issue of "religious liberty."
They were also dealing with some politically clumsy decision making by the Department of Health and Human Services. The specific issue is whether Catholic hospitals would be granted a conscience exemption from a federal requirement that they provide insurance for contraceptives for their employees as mandated by the new health care law.
Freedom of conscience is a long time cherished value in America and political wisdom would have dictated granting the exemption to the Catholic hospitals. It was the Catholic Hospital Association, following its conscience and in opposition to the bishops, which supported the health care bill.
Refusing to back off an earlier ruling, the HHS decided Jan. 20th that there would be no exemption but that the hospitals would have a year to comply.
The Bishops have jumped in and are swinging hard. Cardinal Designate Timothy Dolan, chair of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, said that the administration has drawn a line in the sand. Other bishops are calling Republican allies to plan opposition. There is some talk of civil disobedience.
There is little doubt the HHS decision will be challenged legislatively which would be a no-lose situation for Republicans. Rep. Darrell Issa, chair of the House Government Operations Committee, has already held one hearing on HHS. The issue is being feared as religious freedom -- not, as some would hold, as a clash of values in a pluralistic society.
But the critics of the decision are not only the bishops and Republicans. The Catholic Hospital Association opposes it as do Sen. Bob Casey and The Washington Post. These are serious and substantive objections.
Ironically, some Catholic theologians argue that the use of contraceptives is not a settled moral issue. Also, some Catholic hospitals, Georgetown University for example, already offer contraceptive insurance to their employees.
How do mainline Catholics feel about the use of contraceptives? A poll released in October by Catholic University shows that over 90 percent of American Catholics have no objection to the use of contraceptives despite what they are told by the bishops.
The D'Antonio poll also shows that a large majority of Catholics feel helping the poor is a major element if their faith. That belief will no doubt be pushed to the side by both the bishops and Republicans as they wage war in behalf of religious freedom.