Thanks to James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal, we now have an account of the conversations between Archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and President Barack Obama on the matter of the controversial contraception coverage mandate.
“I was deeply honored that he would call me and discuss these things with me,” the newly elevated Cardinal told Mr. Taranto.
“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.'"
This was good news. The archbishop asked if he might relay the good tidings to the bishops in Baltimore.
An ebullient Mr. Obama responded, “"You don't have my permission, you've got my request."
The Archbishop relayed the president’s message, time passed, and at the end of January the Archbishop discovered to his dismay that the president had set his foot on a more politically firm path:
"So you can imagine the chagrin 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.'”
Here was the imperial Obama presidency in all its pomp and glory. When Napoleon’s ambitions met some resistance from the Pope of his day, the emperor threw down this defy: “How many battalions has the Pope?”
The Archbishop of New York had no battalions.
Following the announcement of the mandate – an interpretation of a provision in the Obamacare bill made by Health and HumanServices Secretary Kathleen Sebelius -- there was a public outcry, and the president felt called upon to make a phone call to Archbishop Dolan.
"He said, 'You will be happy to hear religious institutions do not have to pay for this, that the burden will be on insurers.'"
Was the president seeking his input, Archbishop Dolan asked?
Not at all; input of any kind was quite unnecessary. The Archbishop was told the modified policy was a fait accompli. About three hours after the Cardinal had received the perfunctory call, the president publically announced his “purported accommodation,” which was, according to some First Amendment preservationists, singularly unaccommodating and likely the default position of the administration all along.
The accommodation was designed to satisfy only those who believe – an indispensable part of the credo of secularists and what Jacques Maritain used to call “practical atheists,” some of whom are politicians regarded as respected members of various religious groups – that the mission of Christian churches, Jewish synagogues and Muslim masjids end at the borders of houses of worship.
This credo, according to the Archbishop’s Wall Street interview, cedes to the state the authority to define the mission of religious institutions:
"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.'"
Surrendering to the state such authority, quite common in totalitarian regimes, also violates what most American historians might regard as the American consensus on the proper relationship of church and state.
The excessively polite Archbishop scrupulously avoided in his interview with the Wall Street Journal using the term “un-American.”