Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton, Calif., issued a clarification on May 24 of “some misunderstandings.” His remarks, reported on America’s blog In All Things on May 21, had provoked widespread speculation about a rift within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over its strategy and deportment in the ongoing confrontation over religious liberty with the Obama administration. The U.S.C.C.B.’s national campaign “Fortnight for Freedom” begins on June 21.
Bishop Blaire reiterated his support for the conference’s overall effort. “I stand solidly with my brother bishops in our common resolve to overturn the unacceptable intrusion of government into the life of the church by the mandate” of the Department of Health and Human Services, he said.
On May 21 Bishop Blaire had expressed guarded concerns about strategy after more than 40 lawsuits were filed by Catholic dioceses and institutions around the country challenging the new H.H.S. requirements that contraception services be included in future employer-sponsored health insurance plans. Bishop Blaire is chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and a member of the U.S.C.C.B. Administrative Commit-tee, which approved the “Fortnight of Freedom” campaign in March.
“The bishops that I am in contact with in California are strong supporters of the importance of defending and strengthening religious liberty in our country,” Bishop Blaire said. “I do think there are probably some different concerns with how it is being done,” he added.
According to Bishop Blaire, attorneys for California dioceses had concerns about legal strategy and expressed a desire for more consultation. He explained that the California conference had already gone unsuccessfully down the judicial path in challenging government mandates on contraception and insurance coverage.Bishop Blaire acknowledged that “there is a concern among some bishops that there ought to have been more of a wider consultation” regarding national strategy on religious liberty. “The question is what is our focus as bishops and that we have opportunity to clarify our focus and that we are all in agreement on focus.” He said some bishops appear to be speaking exclusively on the mandate, “that it is imposed...as a violation of [individual] conscience.” Other bishops see the crucial question as the religious liberty of the church itself and its freedom “to exercise her mission through her institutions.”
He added, “I think that it’s important that there be a broader discussion of these issues” at the June U.S. bishops meeting in Atlanta so that U.S. bishops can clarify their message “and not allow it to be co-opted.
“I am concerned that in addressing the H.H.S. mandate,” he said, “that it be clear that what we are dealing with is a matter of religious liberty and the intrusion of government into the church and that it not be perceived as a woman’s issue or a contraceptive issue.”
According to Bishop Blaire, discussions with the Obama administration toward a resolution of the dispute could be fruitful even as alternative judicial and legislative remedies are explored. He worried that some groups “very far to the right” are trying to use the conflict as “an anti-Obama campaign.”
Bishop Blaire said, “I think our rhetoric has to be that of bishops of the church who are seeking to be faithful to the Gospel, that our one concern is that we make sure the church is free to carry out her mission as given to her by Christ, and that remains our focus.” The upcoming meeting in Atlanta, he said, should offer an opportunity for a “thorough and careful discussion” about focus in the religious liberty campaign and Catholic “principles of cooperation that need to be applied in any kind of accommodation.”