When the Archbishop Met the President

Cardinal Dolan thought he heard Barack Obama pledge respect for the Catholic Church’s rights of conscience. Then came the contraception coverage mandate.




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 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.

Related Video

Editorial board member Joe Rago predicts how the Supreme Court will rule on ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion and the law’s severability.

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.

Terry Shoffner

Archbishop Dolan explains that the “accommodation” solves nothing, since most church-affiliated organizations either are self-insured or purchase coverage from Catholic insurance companies like Christian Brothers Investment Services and Catholic Mutual Group, which also see the mandate as “morally toxic.” He argues that the mandate also infringes on the religious liberty of nonministerial organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Catholic-oriented businesses such as publishing houses, not to mention individuals, Catholic or not, who conscientiously object.

“We’ve grown hoarse saying this is not about contraception, this is about religious freedom,” he says. What rankles him the most is the government’s narrow definition of a religious institution. Your local Catholic parish, for instance, is exempt from the birth-control mandate. Not exempt are institutions such as hospitals, grade schools, universities and soup kitchens that employ or serve significant numbers of people from other faiths and whose main purpose is something other than proselytization.

“We find it completely unswallowable, both as Catholics and mostly as Americans, that a bureau of the American government would take it upon itself to define ‘ministry,'” Archbishop Dolan says. “We would find that to be—we’ve used the words ‘radical,’ ‘unprecedented’ and ‘dramatically intrusive.'”

It also amounts to penalizing the church for not discriminating in its good works: “We don’t ask people for their baptismal certificate, nor do we ask people for their U.S. passport, before we can serve them, OK? . . . We don’t serve people because they’re Catholic, we serve them because we are, and it’s a moral imperative for us to do so.”

To be sure, not all Catholics see it that way. Archbishop Dolan makes an argument—which he prefaces with the admission that “I find this a little uncomfortable”—that federal intrusion bolsters those who are more selfishly inclined: “Some Catholics . . . are now saying, ‘Fine, we’ll get out of all that. It’s dragging us down anyway. Rather than be supporting 50 Catholic schools in the inner city where most of the kids are not Catholic, and using a big chunk of diocesan money to do that, we’ll just use it for the schools that have all Catholics, and it’ll serve us a lot better.’ . . .

“I find that, by the way, to be rather un-Catholic,” he continues. “I don’t know what that would say to the gospel mandate to be ‘light to the world’ and ‘salt of the earth.’ It’s part of our religion to be right out there in the forefront, right there in the nitty-gritty.”

An insular attitude, Archbishop Dolan suggests, plays into the hands of ideologues who favor an ever-more-powerful secular government: “I get this all the time: I would have some people say, ‘Cardinal Dolan, you need to go to Albany and say, “If we don’t get state aid by September, I’m going to close all my schools.”‘ I say to them, ‘You don’t think there’d be somersaults up and down the corridors?'”

Another story comes from the nation’s capital: “The Archdiocese of Washington, in a very courteous way, went to the City Council and said, ‘We just want to be upfront with you. If this goes through that we have to place children up for adoption with same-sex couples, we’ll have to get out of the adoption enterprise, which everybody admits we probably do better than anybody else.’ And one of the City Council members said, ‘Good. We’ve been trying to get you out of it forever. And besides, we’re paying you to do it. So get out!'”

What about the argument that vast numbers of Catholics ignore the church’s teachings about sexuality? Doesn’t the church have a problem conveying its moral principles to its own flock? “Do we ever!” the archbishop replies with a hearty laugh. “I’m not afraid to admit that we have an internal catechetical challenge—a towering one—in convincing our own people of the moral beauty and coherence of what we teach. That’s a biggie.”

For this he faults the church leadership. “We have gotten gun-shy . . . in speaking with any amount of cogency on chastity and sexual morality.” He dates this diffidence to “the mid- and late ’60s, when the whole world seemed to be caving in, and where Catholics in general got the impression that what the Second Vatican Council taught, first and foremost, is that we should be chums with the world, and that the best thing the church can do is become more and more like everybody else.”

The “flash point,” the archbishop says, was “Humanae Vitae,” Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical reasserting the church’s teachings on sex, marriage and reproduction, including its opposition to artificial contraception. It “brought such a tsunami of dissent, departure, disapproval of the church, that I think most of us—and I’m using the first-person plural intentionally, including myself—kind of subconsciously said, ‘Whoa. We’d better never talk about that, because it’s just too hot to handle.’ We forfeited the chance to be a coherent moral voice when it comes to one of the more burning issues of the day.”

Without my having raised the subject, he adds that the church’s sex-abuse scandal “intensified our laryngitis over speaking about issues of chastity and sexual morality, because we almost thought, ‘I’ll blush if I do. . . . After what some priests and some bishops, albeit a tiny minority, have done, how will I have any credibility in speaking on that?'”

Yet the archbishop says he sees a hunger, especially among young adults, for a more authoritative church voice on sexuality. “They will be quick to say, ‘By the way, we want you to know that we might not be able to obey it. . . . But we want to hear it. And in justice, you as our pastors need to tell us, and you need to challenge us.'”

As we talk about sex, Archbishop Dolan makes a point of reiterating that his central objection to the ObamaCare mandate is that it violates religious liberty. In their views on that subject, and their role in politics more generally, American Catholics have in fact become “more like everybody else.” When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he found it necessary to reassure Protestants that, in the archbishop’s paraphrase, “my Catholic faith will not inspire my decisions in the White House.”

“That’s worrisome,” Archbishop Dolan says. “That’s a severe cleavage between one’s moral convictions and the judgments one is called upon to make. . . . It’s bothersome to us as Catholics, because that’s the kind of apologia that we expect of no other religion.” But times have changed. Today devout Catholic Rick Santorum is running on the promise that his faith will inform his decisions—and his greatest support comes from evangelical Protestants.

The archbishop sees a parallel irony in his dispute with Mr. Obama: “This is a strange turn of the table, that here a Catholic cardinal is defending religious freedom, the great proposition of the American republic, and the president of the United States seems to be saying that this is a less-than-important issue.”

Religious freedom has received a more sympathetic hearing at the U.S. Supreme Court—which, coincidentally, has had a Catholic majority since 2006. In January, in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the court ruled unanimously in favor of an evangelical Lutheran church’s right to classify teachers as ministers and therefore not subject to federal employment law. Archbishop Dolan sums up the decision: “Nowhere, no how, no way can the federal government seek to intrude upon the internal identity of a religion in defining its ministers.”

But whether the government has the authority to define a ministry—excluding, as the ObamaCare mandate does, church-affiliated institutions like hospitals and schools—is a separate legal question, one that may be resolved in litigation over the birth-control mandate.

It’s possible that the Supreme Court or a new president will render the issue moot. After our interview, the archbishop has a question for me: If the high court rules against ObamaCare, will that be the end of the birth-control mandate? Probably not, I tell him—though such an outcome seems much likelier now than it did early in the week when we met. The justices could end up striking a blow for religious liberty without the question even having reached their docket.

Mr. Taranto, a member of the Journal’s editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for

A version of this article appeared Mar. 31, 2012, on page A11 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: When the Archbishop Met the President.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas


  1. Curt Stoller says:

    Amen . . . anselmusjmj.

    I had the great good fortune to visit Christ in the Desert benedictine Monastery a couple of weeks ago. It reminded me of something Thomas Merton said about the contemplative life. I think it was something he wrote in “The Seven Storey Mountain,” but my memory fails me. He said something to the effect that it seemed to him as if it was only because of monks devoted to prayer and contemplation that God spared the world from utter destruction. It was actually a beautiful quote and I’m sure I’ve mangled it horribly. If anyone knows the quote, please tell me.

    A grain of salt is the epitome of smallness and inanimateness. It seemly “does” nothing. But when one visits a monastery, one becomes aware that contemplative orders and contemplatives are like grains of the salt of the earth. I was blessed to visit St. Anselm’s Abbey as a young man and I will cherish that memory for as long as a live.

    The Catholic Church has become quite politicized of late, for better or worse. Activists of the Left have engendered activists of the Right as a counterbalance. But there is something “to be said” for “silence.” Anselmusjmj is so right about how the Benedictines kept the flame alive during the darkest days of paganism and also about how we are in a dark age of secular paganism right now. I wonder if this dark age is somehow darker since secularism is self-consciously anti-Christian in a way which which a lot of paganism was not, or at least some paganism was not.

  2. anselmusjmj says:

    Our Holy Father chose the name “Benedict” for several reasons, one of them being the influence which Saint Benedict and his Rule had on the Christianization of Europe. Saint Benedict’s world was a largely pagan and unconverted world, and here we are again, in a new form of more sophisticated paganism than the paganism of Saint Benedict’s day. May the new secular pluralistic paganism of the world be defeated by God through the new Benedict. Let’s all not forget to pray for our Pope, bishops and priests daily, offering Mass intentions as well. Christianity has overcome the world through Jesus Christ before, and it will happen again.


  3. Curt Stoller says:

    One problem is that there are two catholic churches in America. One is the Roman Catholic Church in communion with the Holy Father in Rome. And the other is the catholic church which is “in communion” with the principles of radical secularism and is at war with the Roman Catholic Church. Both have laity, priests and Bishops. I would like to think there are no Cardinals in the radically secular catholic church. I sure hope so.

    A soldier who served during the Vietnam War once told me that it was terrifying to live in Saigon during the War because there were so many Vietcong in the South. Vietnamese Communists in Saigon dressed the same as everyone else. He said that every day it was possible for a little girl to throw a flower into one’s jeep or a Russian hand grenade. That is what it is like being a Catholic today.

    As a Catholic in America I can sit in a church pew next to an out and out Marxist revolutionary. Or someone who thinks there is nothing wrong with belonging to an organization called “Catholics for Choice.” One can go into a parish office and ask to have a mass intention for the victims of abortion and have that request refused. One can meet with a representative of a Diocese who will refuse to place prayers for the aborted into the General Intercessions.

    There are entire parishes which are pretty much totally into a type of Liberation Theology that has been condemned by the Holy Father. Nancy Pelosi, who visited the Holy Father , can turn around and oppose His stand on abortion and contraceptives and say to the all the world: “I am a devout Catholic.”

    People from small towns have told me that they cannot find a single Catholic parish that doesn’t either openly oppose the Holy Father or simply ignore him. There are “catholics” who have told me that they can’t wait until the Holy Father dies and someone “progressive” takes over. I live in a fairly large city and have had great difficulty finding a “Catholic” parish that is really Catholic. And I am very lucky that I don’t live in some of these smaller towns where there are basically no “Catholic” churches left. Never has a study of Arianism and Semi-Arianism seemed so important as today. Who would have ever thought that a study of the arcane subject of the validity of the sacraments of heretics would ever be useful.

    I am not condemning a single person here, not even Nancy Pelosi. But clearly, things are seriously messed up when those trying to be orthodox Catholics have to live in fear of their leaders. Romano Guardini predicted this time and said it would be an age of great loneliness for Catholics. It was Judas who really hurt Our Lord more than Pilate and Caiaphas. Things look very grim here in America.

Comments are closed.