By JAMES TARANTO, THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW March 30, 2012, WSJ
The president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops is careful to show due respect for the president of the United States. “I was deeply honored that he would call me and discuss these things with me,” says the newly elevated Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York. But when Archbishop Dolan tells me his account of the their discussions of the ObamaCare birth-control mandate, Barack Obama sounds imperious and deceitful to me.
Mr. Obama knew that the mandate would pose difficulties for the Catholic Church, so he invited Archbishop Dolan to the Oval Office last November, shortly before the bishops’ General Assembly in Baltimore. At the end of their 45-minute discussion, the archbishop summed up what he understood as the president’s message:
“I said, ‘I’ve heard you say, first of all, that you have immense regard for the work of the Catholic Church in the United States in health care, education and charity. . . . I have heard you say that you are not going to let the administration do anything to impede that work and . . . that you take the protection of the rights of conscience with the utmost seriousness. . . . Does that accurately sum up our conversation?’ [Mr. Obama] said, ‘You bet it does.’”
The archbishop asked for permission to relay the message to the other bishops. “You don’t have my permission, you’ve got my request,” the president replied.
“So you can imagine the chagrin,” Archbishop Dolan continues, “when he called me at the end of January to say that the mandates remain in place and that there would be no substantive change, and that the only thing that he could offer me was that we would have until August. . . . I said, ‘Mr. President, I appreciate the call. Are you saying now that we have until August to introduce to you continual concerns that might trigger a substantive mitigation in these mandates?’ He said, ‘No, the mandates remain. We’re more or less giving you this time to find out how you’re going to be able to comply.’ I said, ‘Well, sir, we don’t need the [extra time]. I can tell you now we’re unable to comply.’”
The administration went ahead and announced the mandate. A public backlash ensued, and the archbishop got another call from the president on Feb. 10. “He said, ‘You will be happy to hear religious institutions do not have to pay for this, that the burden will be on insurers.’” Archbishop Dolan asked if the president was seeking his input and was told the modified policy was a fait accompli. The call came at 9:30 a.m. The president announced the purported accommodation at 12:15 p.m.
Sister Carol Keehan of the pro-ObamaCare Catholic Health Association immediately pronounced herself satisfied with the change, and the bishops felt pressure to say something. “We wanted to avoid two headlines. Headline 1 was ‘Bishops Celebrate . . . Accommodations.’ . . . The other headline we wanted to avoid is ‘Bishops Obstinate.’” They rushed out a “circumspect” statement, which Archbishop Dolan sums up as follows: “We welcome this initiative, we look forward to studying it, we hope that it’s a decent first step, but we still have very weighty questions.”
Within hours, “it dawned on us that there’s not much here, and that’s when we put out the more substantive [statement] by the end of the day, saying, ‘Whoa, now we’ve had time to hear what was said at the announcement and to read the substance of it, and this just doesn’t do it.’”
Having rushed to conciliate, they got the “Bishops Obstinate” headlines anyway.