By Stephanie Simon
DENVER (Reuters) - Facing small but clear signs of discontent within their own ranks, U.S. Catholic bishops may be poised to rethink their aggressive tactics for fighting a federal mandate that health insurance plans cover contraception, according to sources close to influential bishops.
There are no indications that the bishops will drop their fight against the federal mandate. But dozens of bishops, meeting this week in Washington, are likely to discuss concerns that their battle against the Obama administration over birth control risks being viewed by the public as narrow and partisan and thus diminishes the church's moral authority, the sources said.
"They're going to have to look at not just what their moral theology tells them they should do, but at what political reality tells them," said Thomas Reese, a Catholic priest and Georgetown University scholar who has written extensively about the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "These are strategic and tactical questions."
One sign of a coming recalibration: A sweeping statement on religious liberty, now circulating in draft form, that aims to broaden the bishops' focus far beyond the contraception mandate.
The draft statement, slated to be released soon to a burst of publicity, condemns an array of local, state and federal policies as violations of religious freedom, said Martin Nussbaum, a private attorney who has consulted with the bishops.
The draft cites, for instance, a Republican-backed law in Alabama that makes it a crime to harbor, transport or rent property to illegal immigrants. The bishops have joined liberals in opposing that law, arguing that would make it a crime to minister to people in need.
By broadening their religious freedom campaign, the bishops hope to rally support from Catholics and the public at large -- even from those who may disagree with them on contraception. The bishops see a need "to remind all their audiences that religious liberty isn't just about in an election year," said Richard Garnett, a University of Notre Dame law professor who works with the bishops. "We cannot let it be dismissed as merely having to do with one particular question."
Polls have shown that a majority of Americans, including most Catholics, support President Barack Obama's policy of requiring health insurance plans to offer free contraception, including sterilization and the morning-after pill.
When the policy was announced in January, only houses of worship were exempt. After an outcry from Catholic leaders who view artificial contraception as immoral, Obama last month modified the plan. He said church-affiliated institutions, such as Catholic universities, would not have to pay for the contraceptive coverage themselves. Instead their insurers would pick up the tab.
The compromise satisfied some religious groups, including the Catholic Health Association, which represents hospitals nationwide. But the bishops have sustained a loud drumbeat of opposition.
Their campaign has included sharp attacks on the Obama administration, which some bishops have compared to communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and North Korea. In a recent column for the Chicago Archdiocese newspaper, Cardinal Francis George accused the administration of plotting to destroy Catholic institutions.
The biting rhetoric has made some bishops uncomfortable.
In an opinion piece last week in the Catholic journal "America," Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Washington, urged calm, civility and respect for the president as a man of faith. He wrote that "in the long run threats and condemnations have a limited impact" and warned that escalating the fight "has the potential to bring lasting harm to both the church and the nation."
Other bishops have chosen not to dwell on the birth-control policy, even as their colleagues ramped up their rhetoric. In a recent letter to his flock about public policy concerns, Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, New York focused exclusively on state issues, pushing for more food aid to poor families and against casino gambling.
Sister Simone Campbell, who leads a Catholic social justice network, said she has seen "internal divisions" emerging among the bishops about "what really matters" and where the church should focus its public megaphone. She expects the dissent to be aired this week at the closed-door meetings in Washington. "They're going to have a big tussle on their hands," she said.
In an interview this week with Religion News Service, Bishop William Lori said that divisions within the church had allowed the administration to deal with different factions, rather than working on a solution that would satisfy everyone in the church. "And I think that is in part why we are in a fairly unhappy spot right now," he said. He called for new negotiations with the White House.
There are some indications that the bishops would come to negotiations with more flexibility. Earlier, they called for rescinding the birth-control rule altogether and for allowing even secular employers to opt out if they had a moral objection.
But Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York suggested in a recent blog post that if the "suffocating mandate" couldn't be scrapped entirely, he would settle for more exemptions for religious institutions, "so that churches can be free."
The Obama administration, however, has made clear it's not interested in negotiating changes to the policy.
Instead, an administration official said the White House would value input from the bishops on practical questions such as how to accommodate Catholic institutions that provide their own insurance and don't want to pay for birth control. But such accommodations would not change the bottom line: "Women will still have access to preventive care that includes contraceptive services," the official said, "no matter where they work."
(Reporting By Stephanie Simon in Denver; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Christopher Wilson)