Vice President Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul… (Charlie Neibergall / AP…)
The nation's Roman Catholic bishops lashed out at Vice President Joe Biden on Friday, saying he was wrong in the way he described a healthcare mandate that would require contraceptive services for employees of some Catholic institutions.
The statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was the latest volley in a heated fight between the Catholic Church and the Obama administration over a mandate published early this year by the Department of Health and Human Services -- a battle that the church has framed as a struggle for religious freedom. The administration has characterized it as being about women's reproductive rights.
In Thursday's vice presidential debate, the first ever between two Catholics, the candidates were asked how their faith shaped their views on abortion. Both said they were opposed to abortion, although Biden said he would not impose his views on others, while Republican Rep. Paul D. Ryan said he would support abortion restrictions. In his answer, Ryan took the opportunity to attack Biden and the Obama administration for "what they're doing through Obamacare with respect to assaulting the religious liberties of this country. They're infringing upon our first freedom, the freedom of religion, by infringing on Catholic charities, Catholic churches, Catholic hospitals."
TRANSCRIPT: Read Biden, Ryan’s arguments
Biden said Ryan was wrong.
"Let me make it absolutely clear," the vice president said. "No religious institution — Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital — none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact. That is a fact."
The bishops' conference, representing the leadership of the church in the United States, leaped in on Ryan's side. "This is not a fact," its unsigned statement said. It went on to say that the HHS mandate will "force virtually all employers to include sterilization and contraception, including drugs that may cause abortion, in the health insurance coverage they provide their employees."
Both sides may be technically right.
DEBATE QUIZ: Who said it?
While the administration's original proposal required employers, including church-affiliated institutions such as those mentioned by Ryan and Biden, to provide contraceptive services in their employee healthcare packages, HHS later attempted to satisfy the church's concerns with a revision that put the onus on insurance companies, not religious-affiliated employers themselves. (Churches themselves were always exempt.) It said the insurers would have to bear the cost of the contraceptive coverage, thereby giving the church the ability to say it was not paying for or sanctioning services that violate Catholic doctrine.
The bishops never accepted the compromise effort, however, portraying it as a meaningless technicality. In their latest statement, they said that Catholic institutions will "still be forced to provide their employees with health coverage, and that coverage will still have to include sterilization, contraception, and abortifacients. They will have to pay for these things, because the premiums that the organizations (and their employees) are required to pay will still be applied, along with other funds, to cover the cost of these drugs and surgeries."
The bishops' fight has obvious political significance, given the nation's large Catholic population. However, polls have shown that while most Catholics agree with the bishops on the HHS issue, it does not appear to be influencing the way most intend to vote. Polls have shown the Catholic population to be supporting Obama and Romney in almost precisely the same percentages as the population at large. Like Americans of other faiths (and no faith), most Catholics see the economy as the overriding issue.
By framing the issue as one of women’s reproductive rights, the administration is also clearly hoping that the dispute will rally voters for whom that is a significant issue. Women’s rights groups have pointed out that many employees of Catholic hospitals and universities – the majority, in some cases – are non-Catholic, and that the majority of Catholic women in the United States use contraception, despite church doctrine banning it.
The dispute between the church and the administration, and between Biden and Ryan, also illuminates a divide in the church between those who see abortion as an issue of overriding significance and those who put more stress on other social issues, such as poverty. Writing in the Huffington Post, the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit priest, ruminated Friday on the vice presidential debate and said the election had created "a kind of Rorschach test for U.S. Catholic voters."
"Ryan," he said, "is a Catholic who is clearly opposed to abortion and not so clearly in support of programs that would directly help the poor. Biden is not so clearly opposed to abortion and clearly in support of programs that would directly help the poor. They represent, in a sense, two distinct types of 'Catholicisms' alive in our country today. It's a big church, as an elderly Jesuit I know likes to say."
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