Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Behind Closed Doors, "High Noon" For the Mandate

(SVILUPPO – 4.45pm ET: At the close of Wednesday's eight-hour executive session, a "special message" from the bishops on the HHS mandate was released.)

Sure, the cameras might be gone – and the press, staff, merchants and observers already headed home – but only today in Baltimore does the key debate and decision of this USCCB Plenary's business arise, albeit in executive session.

Almost two years since the Obama administration announced compulsory coverage for contraceptives in benefit plans – a step called "unconscionable" from the outset by the bishops – all of seven weeks remain until the mandate takes effect for faith-based groups that don't meet the Feds' criteria for exemption, and today is the last chance the new rule's most impacted constituency has to forge a consensus on its response.

Should non-exempt church-owned entities – a sprawling national network of Catholic charities, hospitals and universities – not comply, each would be subject to a $100 penalty per employee per day. But as one bishop mused last night, "What if we stuck together and didn't pay the penalties? What would happen then?" To be clear, it's not a lone thought.

In the hopes of striking a balance everyone can live with, the HHS talks are expected to take up the lion's share of the daylong private session.

Unusually for a November Plenary, the head of the Catholic Health Association, Daughter of Charity Sr Carol Keehan, has been on-site through the week. A pivotal supporter of Obamacare – a move which led to no shortage of friction between CHA and, even now, much of the conference – Keehan's team signaled their ability to accept the policy with its "accommodations" in a July statement. While the bishops as a body have remained considerably more skeptical of the regulations' final form, no conclusions of the bench's "continued analysis" of the mandate have yet emerged.

On a related note, yesterday saw the brief absence of two prelates as Bishops David Zubik of Pittsburgh and Lawrence Persico of Erie returned to Pittsburgh to testify at a pre-trial hearing in their dioceses' lawsuits against the government on grounds of the mandate's violation of religious freedom in forcing the church into "complicity with evil" as determined by the Magisterium. (Roughly 100 such suits have been filed nationwide, with mixed decisions on the cases bolstering the odds of an eventual Supreme Court review.) A videotaped deposition of the departing President, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, likewise figured in the proceedings.

While some bishops have continued to pursue a stance of shutting down their non-exempt entities in the face of the challenge, that line was criticized from an exceptional quarter as, in a Monday interview with the Boston Globe, Cardinal Seán O'Malley OFM Cap. said that "closing the institutions down is also an evil for us."

Already the conference's Pro-Life chair before his April appointment as the North American member of Pope Francis' unprecedented "Gang of Eight" advisers, O'Malley added that he had "nixed" his September proposal for the USCCB's establishment of a 501(c)(4) national fund to help protect the church from antagonistic moves by legislatures or in referendums, saying the venture would feed perceptions of the bishops as "overly political."

As for any resolution from the mandate talks, the conference statutes prohibit voting in executive sessions – all binding business must be conducted in public. The body may, however, approve the release a message following today's discussions in the form of a "Statement of the President," signaling their unofficial force behind it by means of applause.

Tomorrow morning, the week of committee meetings and Floor sessions wraps up with a Holy Hour led by the newly-retired Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland. Then, without ceremony of any sort, on the 17th anniversary of the death of the conference's principal architect, Thursday Noon brings the transfer of leadership to the new President and Vice-President.

We're nowhere near done yet, folks – clean-up notes and all the rest to come... and, as ever, real-time updates via Page Three (either here or along your right sidebar).