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Let’s be persuasive and civil after a presidential poke in the eye

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Catholic News Service

Call it curious, ironic or just plain strange. New York Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, published a Jan. 25 op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal to express his frustration over President Barack Obama’s ruling that most health insurance plans will have to cover contraception and other measures that are forbidden by official church teaching.

This points to a communication gap between Catholic leadership and the White House that has not always been there.

Franklin D. Roosevelt welcomed the advice of Msgr. John A. Ryan. Richard Nixon sought the counsel of Sulpician Father John Cronin.

Father William J. Byron, SJ

John F. Kennedy had Catholic laymen such as Ralph Dungan, Lawrence O’Brien and Kenneth O’Donnell in his inner circle, not to mention the affable Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston at the other end of a telephone line.

I don’t know about Presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, but both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush had open communication with Catholic leaders. President Bill Clinton, a Georgetown University graduate, had access to former professors when he wanted it.

True, Cardinal-designate Dolan had a Nov. 8, 2011, conversation in the White House with the president on these issues and the president gave him a courtesy call before making his Jan. 20 announcement.

But this presidential decision is a poke in the Catholic eye and a signal that church influence is on the decline.

Some will undoubtedly say contraception is no longer a major issue in the minds of the Catholic laity; they will agree with the comment of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, who says in a story in The New York Times on the Obama ruling that “scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women.”

The church still upholds the ban on contraception, and the much firmer Catholic stance against abortion also is under assault here.

This presidential order will require that all employers must purchase health insurance that covers not only contraception for employees but also abortion-producing drugs and sterilization.

Cardinal-designate Dolan registered a strong protest in his Wall Street Journal article and asserted that a denial of an exemption to all Catholic institutional employers amounts to a serious denial of religious freedom, and not just for Catholics.

He said that “this latest erosion of our first freedom should make all Americans pause. When the government tampers with a freedom so fundamental to the life of our nation, one shudders to think what lies ahead.”

As concerned Catholics look ahead, we have to examine our effectiveness in making our case, not by threat or power plays, but by reasoned moral argument. This has to happen first between the ears of our best thinkers.

It also requires clear articulation by our spokespersons. We have to be concerned about keeping the lines of communication open between church and state.

If we do not have good acoustics for moral argument in the church itself — in our own universities, journals, newspapers, and parish and diocesan discussion forums — we can hardly complain about the absence of listening posts in our national government.

If we are going to be heard, we also have to listen. And when we speak, we have to be clear, persuasive, nonthreatening, noncoercive and completely civil.

We have a right (the right of religious freedom) to an exemption in this case, and the president has a duty to grant it.

Jesuit Father William J. Byron is a university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.