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Jenkins converses with White House

Sarah Mervosh | Sunday, February 26, 2012

Before President Obama publicly announced each decision regarding the contraception mandate, a Holy Cross priest in South Bend received a phone call.

University President Fr. John Jenkins heard from the White House prior to the original contraception mandate announcement in January and before the subsequent accommodation announcement earlier this month, University Spokesman Dennis Brown said. 

“[Jenkins] appreciates the dialogue he’s had with the White House and will continue to keep the lines of communication open,” Brown said.

Since he invited Obama to speak at Notre Dame’s commencement ceremony in 2009, Jenkins has been criticized for initiating dialogue with an administration that takes a pro-choice stance on abortion. 

Now, as tensions between the Obama administration and Catholic leaders across the country rise over another right-to-life issue, Jenkins has engaged in a give-and-take conversation with the White House in an attempt to tackle unresolved issues with the contraception mandate. 

The current version of the mandate requires insurance companies rather than religiously-affiliated employers to pay for contraception for employees. The Obama administration said self-insured employers, like Notre Dame, would be included in the exemption, but has not released specifics as to how this will work. 

Brown said Jenkins welcomes conversations with the White House because respectful dialogue is the only path to resolving disagreements.

“He has emphasized over the past three years that you can’t change society unless you persuade people, and you can’t persuade them unless you engage them in a respectful way,” Brown said. “So you don’t shun the person you want to persuade perhaps especially when that person is our president.”

Nick Papas, a White House spokesman, said the Obama administration appreciates its relationship with Jenkins.

“We deeply value Fr. Jenkins’ advice and counsel,” he said. “The White House also benefits from a number of Notre Dame alums who play an integral role in our Administration.”

The spokesmen for the White House and Notre Dame declined to share specifics about the nature and extent of Jenkins’ relationship with the White House, citing those conversations as private.

“It would be imprudent for us to get into an detail on these private conversations,” Brown said. 

Sometimes, part of the conversation has meant pushing back.

When Obama responded to opposition from religious groups earlier this month and announced a modification that put responsibility for funding contraception onto insurance companies, Jenkins released a statement saying the accommodation was a “welcome step toward recognizing the freedom of religious institutions.”

But when the White House included Jenkins’ statement in a blog post of statements from organizations supportive of Obama’s accommodation, including Planned Parenthood, Notre Dame asked for Jenkins’ statement to be removed.

“We asked the White House to remove it from their blog because, while he viewed the ‘accommodation’ … as a step in the right direction, he believes there is much still to be done and was not offering the same support as others who were cited,” Brown said. 

Jenkins previously spoke out against the original proposal for the contraception mandate. 

When the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) opened the original rule up for comment, Jenkins sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in September asking that Notre Dame and other religious institutions be exempt from providing contraceptive services.

“This would compel Notre Dame to either pay for contraception and sterilization in violation of the Church’s moral teaching, or to discontinue our employee and student health care plans in violation of the Church’s social teaching,” Jenkins wrote. “It’s an impossible position.”

Jenkins has since worked with the Obama administration to resolve this “impossible position.” In addition, he has been in conversation with Church leaders at a national and local level.

“He also has been in regular conversation with Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Kevin Rhoades from the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend as we work together in a united effort on this issue,” Brown said.

Brown said the University plans to discuss specifics as to how the contraception mandate will affect Notre Dame in the near future. In the mean time, Jenkins will remain in communication with the White House, he said.  

“There will continue to be engagement with the administration on this and other issues,” Brown said.