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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Key Catholic Bishop Praises Obama On HHS Mandate

It hasn’t gotten nearly the publicity afforded to critics of President Obama, but a post by Michael Sean Winters’ directed me to a fine statement made recently by Bishop Robert Lynch of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida. Bishop Lynch was writing in response to the most recent efforts of the Obama administration to adjust its controversial mandate requiring contraception coverage. Lynch not only brings his perspective as leader of a diocese and former General Secretary of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), but also his current service as a member of the Catholic Health Association Board of Directions which has been at the forefront of the negotiations between the Obama administration and concerned Catholics. The civil language and careful tone that the Bishop uses is striking and from my perspective welcome.

Lynch begins by noting that he waited eight days before commenting because he wanted to study the new HHS regulations carefully and to draw on the wisdom of lay people who have experience in the law, especially those who work for Catholic health care facilities that would be impacted by the regulations. While this would seem to be an obvious step, it was nonetheless refreshing to hear the Bishop say it:

I and almost every other bishop have waited while our own attorneys have studied the “regs” in detail. I also have the added assistance as a member of the Catholic Health Association Board of Directions, having listened to their General Counsel’s careful opinion of what influence these new regulations would have on Catholic Health Care interests. The wise and prudent approach has suggested not rushing into comments without the assistance of those more skilled in reading and understanding government “legalese” than most bishops. (emphasis added)

It was also refreshing to read the bishop’s acknowledgment of a genuine effort by the Obama administration:

1. Clearly, the Administration has been desirous of listening to and accommodating the concerns of Catholics and other people and institutions of conscience, like myself, who had real worries about the regulatory language in possession up till last Friday. There has been a serious effort to accommodate some of the conscience concerns of the Catholic bishops and I feel some expression of gratitude is due to the Administration. (emphasis added)
2. One would be hard put to find any other segment of the American public whose concerns about the Affordable Health Care Act have attempted to be dealt with than those of the Catholic bishops and other like-minded people on this very important matter. There have been moments when I think we should consider ourselves lucky that they are still talking to us. (emphasis added)

The bishop not only felt listened to, he believes that substantive steps have been made and he states those clearly:

The result has been that many of our concerns, about religious freedom and conscience have been attempted to be met. For me the first attempt of the government to define religious ministry outside of our houses of worship has been addressed in the removal all together of the first three prongs of the prior definition and I am personally at peace with this aspect of the challenge. (emphasis added)

The bishop goes on to indicate that there are still areas that he hopes to see changed during the comment period set up by HHS. He agrees with Cardinal Dolan and the USCCB’s decision that “seeks to continue to explore progress on some points which would lead to improvement” and he is hopeful for more changes but very pleased with the steps that have been taken and left to wonder if perhaps the Obama administration has listened to the bishops issues more than the bishops have listened to the Obama administration:

We still have time to work to smooth out some of the rough waters which lie ahead. As one member, I would hope that our episcopal conference might be as open to listening to the issues and challenges which government seems to face as I believe they have been so far in hearing our concerns. But in the end, everyone must prepare themselves for what is likely to be imperfect regulations drawn from imperfect legislation. I still am grateful that more universal health care coverage will be the first fruit of the Affordable Care Act and I am beginning to feel that I can say to my diocesan self-insured employees, all 1400 of them, that their moral right to health care coverage will survive this moment. (emphasis added)

Near the conclusion of his statement the bishop makes a very interesting point about the actions of other bishops, including those at the USCCB headquarters. He clearly states his concern that many of these leaders are not actually listening to the Catholic leadership at the local level who lead the health centers and hospitals that would be affected. It is a serious charge that leads to an interesting conclusion about the need for greater humility on the part of bishops.

As far as I know, at no time up to yesterday (Friday) since the new HHS regs were made available for review and public comment, has anyone from the conference structure consulted with legal counsel for other entities in the Church (hospitals, college and universities, Catholic Charities) to ask their read on how this proposal will affect their ministry. Yet the USCCB statement, it seems, would have one believe that the above mentioned entities might fairly have their “noses out-of-joint” because they are being given consideration under the “accommodation” and not the “exemption.” I did not leave this week’s Board of Director’s meeting of the Catholic Health Association thinking that all those CEO’s of systems and related members felt they were being treated as second class citizens by these new regulations. Perhaps we bishops need a little more humility from time to time, recognizing that we are not the only “game in town” but that there are other players, women and men of great faith who also love the Church, and who can speak for themselves and their organizations, on what effect legislation, proposed legislation, regulations will have on their ministry. A more collaborative effort might lead to greater results. (emphasis added)

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