I realize that a little below this, Emily has an excellent post covering the HHS mandate that now has many of the Catholic bishops telling their flocks that the Obama Administration has declared war on their church. In my mind, however, one of the most frustrating aspects of this story is precisely that it is reported as a story about contraception. It really has little to do with contraception, and everything to do with the First Amendment and the free exercise of faith.
It is one reason that even liberal Catholics such as E.J. Dionne are now criticizing the administration. Plainly the administration reckoned that contraception is less controversial than abortion, that American Catholics largely ignore their church on this issue, and that the bishops have lost a great deal of credibility with their flocks for a host of reasons. All this is correct. The mistake is this: while abortion doesn't affect the church or its bishops directly, this mandate does: it means the federal government telling them how to run their own institutions. Hence the reaction, and hence the great miscalculation.
The point is this: A nation based on liberty depends on a public square thick with private and religious organizations. When you drive them off that square, government usually takes their places, at higher cost and with worse results. Already Catholic institutions have been shoved off the public square in the adoption business, and the Obama administration denied the Catholic organization the contract to treat victims of sexual trafficking even though it had the highest rating. The bishops see this.
Over at National Review, Yuval Levin has the best substantive analysis of the religious liberty issues I have seen. If only our bishops could write and teach as clearly as Yuval ...
Here's the money paragraph:
In this sense, what is at issue in the controversy over the administration’s rule is not just the question of religious liberty but the question of non-governmental institutions in a free society. Does civil society consist of a set of institutions that help the government achieve its purposes as it defines them when their doing so might be more efficient or convenient than the state’s doing so itself, or does civil society consist of an assortment of efforts by citizens to band together in pursuit of mutual aims and goods as they understand them? Is it an extension of the state or of the community? In this arena, as in a great many others, the administration is clearly determined to see civil society as merely an extension of the state, and to clear out civil society—clearing out the mediating layers between the individual and the state—when it seems to stand in the way of achieving the president’s agenda. The idea is to leave as few non-individual players as possible in the private sphere, and to turn those few that are left into agents of the government. This is the logic of a lot of the administration’s approach to the private economy, not just to civil society. It is key to the design of Obamacare (which aims to yield massive consolidation in the insurance sector, leaving just a handful of very large insurers that would function as public utilities), of significant portions of Dodd-Frank (which would privilege and protect a few very large banks that would function as public utilities while strangling all the others with red tape), and of much of the regulatory agenda of the left. And it is all the more so the character of the administration’s approach to charitable institutions. It is an attack on mediating institutions of all sorts, moved by the genuine belief that they are obstacles to a good society.