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Shutdown Losers Include Catholic Bishops

October 18, 2013

While Stephen Colbert was roasting Cardinal Timothy Dolan at Thursday's Al Smith Dinner in New York, the organization Dolan heads was quietly confessing that it got burned by the Republican Party's hostage-taking of the federal government and U.S. debt ceiling. In the opening paragraph its press release, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (UCCSB) "welcomed the decision of federal government leaders to agree to end the partial government shutdown." But it was only near the end that the bishops admitted their role in manufacturing the crisis in the first place.

You might have missed the ersatz mea culpa if you stopped after reading the statement of Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development:

"The shutdown has had a widespread impact on many people, especially the poor, who suffered for lack of basic services during the period. With the government now open, beneficiaries of government services, particularly the elderly and children, can hope to resume a normal life with a safety net securely in place."

But the shutdown that had a "widespread impact on many impact" occurred only because conservative hardliners--including the UCCSB--tried to blackmail a President determined to protect the full faith and credit of the United States over birth control. Their price?

In a September 26 letter, Archbishop Lori and Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston, chair of the bishops' Pro-Life Activities committee, called for legislation that preserves "religious freedom and the right of conscience for all who take part in our health care system."
They urged that the policy of the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 940/S. 1204) be incorporated into must-pass legislation such as the Continuing Resolution and debt ceiling bill.

If that extortion sounds familiar, it should. Because just days ago, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan demanded it be paid as part of any agreement to reopen the government and avoid a global economic catastrophe in the wake of America's looming default:

Ryan argued that the House would need those deadlines as "leverage" for delaying the health-care law's individual mandate and adding a "conscience clause" -- allowing employers and insurers to opt out of birth-control coverage if they find it objectionable on moral or religious grounds.

To put it another way, Ryan and the Catholic bishops were demanding Congress abort the U.S. economy if their demands to restrict access to contraception were not met.
The bishops' September 26th ransom note wasn't their first. In March, Terence Jeffrey of CNS explained how the bishops' planned to extort the President of the United States:

If the Republican-controlled House were to agree to the request of the Catholic bishops and move this week to include H.R. 940 in the "must-pass" CR, the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Obama would have a choice to make. They could choose to preserve the administration's power to force Catholics and other Christians to act against their faith, reject the House-passed CR, and thus risk a shut down of the federal government...
If, instead, the Republican-controlled House fulfilled the Catholic bishops' request by including H.R. 940 in a bill to lift the debt limit, the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Obama would face a similar choice. In this case, it would be between preserving the administration's regulation forcing Catholics and other Christians to act against their faith and preserving the administration's authority to continue borrowing money to pay the expenses the government is now running in excess of its revenues.

Such a scenario would not only have been unprecedented, it would have been cataclysmic. That warning wasn't issued by the Obama administration but came from House Speaker and noted Catholic John Boehner. As he put it just after picking up the Speaker's gavel in 2011:

"That would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy."

Not to mention for "the least of these."
Mercifully for the American people, that did not come to pass this week. Instead, as Stephen Colbert showed last night, the joke is on Cardinal Dolan.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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