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A sensible and solid compromise

Updated: March 13, 2012 10:29AM

What did he say?

“I don’t like to report my conversations with the president, even to a great Chicago newspaper,” she said diplomatically.

Sister Carol Keehan’s courage in bucking Catholic bishops is well-known. Her support, as president and CEO of the Catholic Hospital Association, was crucial to the passage of the administration’s Affordable Care Act in 2010.

But when it came to the firestorm over the government not exempting religious institutions other than churches from paying for women’s contraception insurance coverage, Keehan was not on board. Nor were a lot of Catholics, even some disaffected ones.

“We know Catholics don’t subscribe to the contraceptive teachings . . . of their bishops,” she said. “But they are intensely proud of the church’s ministry to the poor, to the sick.”

“To say to those of us in health care and universities . . . that we are not ministries because we don’t spend all of our time evangelizing or don’t hire our own,” she continued, “did not respect the heritage of what hospitals and Catholic charities have contributed to the church.”

Clearly, a nerve had been hit.

Not just for Catholic bishops who, battered by scandal, could galvanize around this issue. Not just for Republican presidential hopefuls who, as the economy improves, have begun to re-engage on social issues.

The nerve had been hit with what a Catholic friend of mine calls “The Tribe.” That is to say, people who — practicing or not — consider themselves Catholic. And who take pride in “corporal acts of mercy” like tending to the sick or caring for the disabled.

Barack Obama relied on rank-and-file Catholics in his 2008 election. And he needs them now.

But the president also needs independent women on his side. And they, recently infuriated by the Susan B. Komen Foundation’s now-rescinded defunding of Planned Parenthood, are sick of feeling like second-class citizens when it comes to anything connected to birth control. The White House was forced to retrench.

And fast.

“Fortunately, they caught it, they fixed it,” Keehan said. “And we should continue to make the Affordable Care Act work for people who have nothing or very little in health insurance. And not be distracted.”

Opponents of current health-care law, meanwhile, are focused on repealing it. That debate rages on.

And so too does the dispute over what constitutes a “religious institution” or “separation of church and state.”

Catholic institutions, on the one hand, willingly accept government grants and contracts that are funded by taxpayers who, in many cases, are neither Catholic nor accepting of the church’s mission.

But government also relies on the church — and other religious denominations — to do what it can’t or won’t do: care for the most vulnerable among us.

The Catholic Church is the single largest private provider of social services, education and health care in the United States. The Obama administration understood all of that long ago and yet bungled the ball on this issue . . . until it got it right with a solid, sensible, necessary compromise. Respectful of women’s rights.

And religious conscience.

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