A Most Vexing Problem

The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, the most prominent voice on All Things Catholic in the Court of Obama, publicly opposed the narrow religious exemption set forth in the HHS “contraceptive” mandate. He went so far as to say that President Obama had “utterly botched” the handling of the mandate, and that in so doing, the president was “throwing his progressive Catholic allies under the bus.” Despite all that, Dionne has recently taken to playing the role of the administration’s most ardent and vocal Catholic defender in the HHS controversy. What gives?

Let’s review the bidding. “The most vexing problem with the original exemption on contraception,” Dionne once explained, “is that it defined ‘religious’ so narrowly that the reality that these organizations go out of their way to serve non-Catholics was held against them. Their gospel-inspired work was defined as nonreligious. This violated the very essence of Christian charity and the church’s social-justice imperatives.”

Notice, Dionne’s objection had nothing to do with contraception, or who even pays for it. His objection had to do with what distinctions the government can and cannot justly make vis-à-vis the nature of the Church. Simply put, it is a religious freedom argument. In fact, it is almost identical to one religious liberty argument—there are several to be made—offered by the Administrative Committee of the USCCB which describes the mandate as “unjust and illegal” and a threat to religious liberty of “unprecedented magnitude”:

HHS thus creates and enforces a new distinction – alien both to our Catholic tradition and to federal law – between our houses of worship and our great ministries of service to our neighbors, namely, the poor, the homeless, the sick, the students in our schools and universities, and others in need, of any faith community or none.

The “original” religious exemption to which Dionne objected was founded upon a highly restrictive, four-part legal test to determine who does and does not qualify as a “religious employer” for purposes of exemption. Alas, as Dionne well knows, that exact rule has since been entered into the federal register “without change.”

Moreover, the administration has made it perfectly clear that, when it does finally issue an accommodating rule, the one thing that won’t be included is a revision of the restrictive four-part test for religious employers. Dionne’s “most vexing problem” turns out to be one of the administration’s non-negotiables.

       The view at the Washington Post

By now it is perfectly clear that the odious four-part religious test was not, as Dionne originally insisted, a rare unforced political error made by a usually faith-savvy President Obama. If it were simply a misstep, the president would have quickly and easily corrected his mistake. Instead President Obama doubled down, reaffirming his principled disregard for religious liberty and effectively telling his “progressive Catholic allies” – including Dionne – that if they don’t want to be under the bus, they best get aboard.

Faced with that choice, Dionne’s concern over the “most vexing” threat to religious liberty has vanished in the political wind.

Meanwhile, since the administration isn’t backtracking, it needs to find cover. HHS is punting on the final “accommodation” until well after the election, by which time the president with either be safely reelected or lame-ducking it until January. Either way, there’s zero political incentive to finally produce those “sensible conscience protections” he’s been promising since he took the podium at Notre Dame three years ago. Apart from pushing further rule-making into post-election limbo, the administration wants to prevent the mandate’s opponents from gaining any traction between now and November.

That’s where Dionne comes in. No one wants his champion knocked from the pedestal, and so rather than see his favored president suffer the political consequences of his manifest hostility to religious liberty, Dionne turned his venom on the most steadfast and effective opposition to the HHS mandate: the Catholic bishops.

From his perch at the Washington Post, Dionne darkly warned that the “most conservative bishops” are perfectly willing to “junk the Roman Catholic Church as we have known it, with its deep commitment to both life and social justice, and turn it into the Tea Party at prayer.” This from a man who, mere weeks before, wrote in the very same space that the HHS mandate, “violated the very essence of Christian charity and the church’s social-justice imperatives.”

And while the bishops, unlike Dionne, have remained steadfast in their opposition to the mandate, Dionne has the temerity to suggest that, for partisan reasons, the bishops have “transformed a moment of exceptional Catholic unity into an occasion for recrimination and anger.”

One can easily imagine how disconcerting it must be for someone who takes his Catholic faith seriously – as Dionne undoubtedly does – to find himself at odds with a so unified a bishops’ conference. But Dionne alone must answer for his politics and loyalties, as we all must. As for his angry recriminations in defense of that most vexing mandate, let us take solace knowing that petulance is rarely a sign of strength. Mandatum delendum est.

Stephen P. White

Stephen P. White

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

  • Dave

    Does E. J. Dionne undoubtedly take his Catholic faith seriously? That is a very charitable assumption but I’m not convinced that the facts support the assertion. What he takes very seriously is the notion that being Catholic is being in agreement with the social policies of the Democratic Party, and that when there is a conflict, the Democratic Party wins. Else why the 180 pivot when his heroes — the President and the HHS Secretary — refused to back down and doubled-down instead. What he also takes seriously is his position on WaPo’s Opinion Page.

    As for the President’s principled disregard for religious liberty, it’s worth noting that since 2009 — shortly after his inauguration — he has always spoken of freedom of worship; and I don’t think there’s a speech since that 20th of January where he speaks of freedom of religion. I would like to be wrong on that and would welcome a correction. But the HHS gambit serves as proof that his fundamental conviction is you can believe what you want in private, when you’re in public you play by my rules. The overreach is breath-taking in its audacity. Dionne knows it. He just can’t admit it to himself, any longer, because his fidelity is alas to something other than the Church. And so we must pray more.

  • Nick Palmer

    Actually, Dave, Dionne does take “HIS” Catholic faith seriously. That’s the problem. He has no time for “THE” Catholic faith. He’s another child of the distortions of Vatican II — just a more eloquent and better read Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

    For Dionne and his ilk there is no magisterium. His self-will and distorted conscience are his god.


  • Jacob

    I think the way forward is to keep shrinking from the fight.

    When another Catholic stands up for what it truly means to be Catholic (you know silly things the Pope says that 95% of American Catholics are too smart to listen to), we need to abandon him, call him a religious nut and assure our (real) secular friends that we didn’t mean to offend them by letting our coreligionist get out of line!
    Let them know that real Christianity isn’t so much about Jesus, who when we really get down to it said pesky things that might not play well with our secular academic friends, but more about not judging anyone or saying anything that might bother people!
    You know those early Christians who were killed by lions–I think they were called martyrs–were extremely misguided! If only they had known to just get on the same boards of regents and editorial boards as the pagan Romans and avoid ever offending them! (I’m sure a lot of the early Christians sold out their coreligionists for being too loud and dangerous to their welcome in society circles!)

  • Dave

    God grant we be worth of the martyrs right down to our own day if it comes to that for us, which I suspect it will.

  • Matthew

    Since the vast majority of American bishop’s find excommunication in defense of the faith distasteful and even abhorrent in this modern age; how can they suggest to the Catholic laity to excommunicate their own politicians from office in defense of the 1st Amendment?

    The self- described “Souled Out” Catholics such as E.J. Dionne, Augustine-inspired Catholics such as Nancy Pelosi and “Eucharistic-ally Bold” Kathleen Sebelius need not fear the Catholic voters because they understand their bishop’s influence. The threat of voter excommunication from office has no power due to the bishop’s refusal to exercise their own power.

    Consider that even Republican Catholics have not voted for Santorum over Romney on the critical life and moral issues. Perhaps Catholics are indeed rallying to the bishop’s call; personally practicing the separation of Church and State in their daily lives. Well done bishops, by adopting Americanism for decades you have ironically helped Catholics destroy the U.S. Constitution.

  • Manfred

    Let us compare E.J. Dionne with Fr. Thomas Reese, the former editor of AMERICA magazine. The ink was barely dry on the papers installing Cdl Ratzinger as Pope Benedict when the new pope insisted that Reese be removed as the editor. Reese is still a darling of the Left, but his pulpit has been taken away. As long as the Church refuses to excommunicate dissident members, the fraud will continue that “we are saying the same thing-we are merely using different words.”

  • Jim Thunder

    May I encourage the author to ask Mr Dionne formally for what Mr Dionne’s current evaluation is of the argument he made concerning the scope of the exemption?

  • WSquared

    Re Jacob: “Let them know that real Christianity isn’t so much about Jesus, who when we really get down to it said pesky things that might not play well with our secular academic friends, but more about not judging anyone or saying anything that might bother people!”

    Actually, Christianity vis-a-vis the sorts of attitudes you describe really is about Jesus: the Jesus in question is one’s “own personal Jesus”; a Jesus made in the individual’s own image and who is an avatar of said individual’s private judgment and “conscience.” Hence that glib comment, flung about ad nauseum, known as “What Would Jesus Do?”