Next Battle: Catholic Bishops Unanimous ‘In Our Vigorous Opposition to This Unjust and Illegal Mandate’

June 28, 2012 - 1:57 PM

Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Interior dome at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold most of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—AKA Obamacare—sets the stage for an historically unprecedented confrontation between Roman Catholics and the federal government over whether Catholics remain free to exercise their religion in the United States of America.

The court’s decision leaves untouched the “preventive services” provision in the legislation under which the Department of Health and Human Services issued a regulation that will require virtually all health-care plans in the United States to cover sterilizations, artificial contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.

On June 14, the Catholic bishops of the United States—representing dioceses from Los Angeles to New York, from New Orleans to Chicago, from Miami to Seattle, and from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco—unanimously adopted a document that cited their “vigorous opposition to this unjust and illegal mandate.”

Because the Catholic Church holds that sterilization, artificial contraception and abortion are morally wrong, and because the individual mandate in Obamacare will force virtually all individuals in the United States to purchase government approved health-care plans, Obamacare—as upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday—will require all Catholic laypersons in the United States to buy health insurance plans that violate the teachings of their faith.

The HHS regulation will also require Catholic hospitals, universities and charitable organizations to purchase health insurance plans that violate the Catholic faith.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius—a Catholic who has been ordered by her archbishop not to take Holy Communion until she recants her position in favor of legal abortion and goes to confession—has given most employers until Aug. 1 to comply with this regulation. She has allowed religiously affiliated non-profit organizations (such as Catholic hospitals, schools, and charities)  that do not currently cover sterilizations, artificial contraceptives, or abortifacients an additional year--until Aug. 1, 2013--to comply with the mandate and then violate the teachings of their faith.

Forty-three Catholic dioceses and institutions—including the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., St. Louis and New York, the University of Notre Dame and Catholic University—have filed lawsuits against the sterilzation-contraception-abortifacient mandate arguing that it violates the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

Since the Catholics filed their lawsuits, President Obama has boasted about the contraception mandate in public speeches.

In their unanimous declaration against the HHS regulation, the Catholic bishops said Obama’s sterilization-contraception-abortifacient mandate not only falsely defines Catholic institutions such as hospitals, schools and charitable organizations as not “religious,” but also violates the “personal civil rights” of individual lay Catholics and members of other denominations who share the same moral convictions.

“The HHS mandate creates still a third class, those with no conscience protection at all: individuals who, in their daily lives, strive constantly to act in accordance with their faith and moral values,” said the unanimous Catholic bishops. “They, too, face a government mandate to aid in providing ‘services’ contrary to those values—whether in their sponsoring of, and payment for, insurance as employers; their payment of insurance premiums as employees; or as insurers themselves—without even the semblance of an exemption.

“This, too,” said the unanimous bishops, “is unprecedented in federal law, which has long been generous in protecting the rights of individuals not to act against their religious beliefs or moral convictions. We have consistently supported these rights, particularly in the area of protecting the dignity of all human life, and we continue to do so.”

The unanimous Catholic bishops expressed their “thanks to all who have stood firmly with us in our vigorous opposition to this unjust and illegal mandate: to our brother bishops; to our clergy and religious; to our Catholic faithful; to the wonderful array of Catholic groups and institutions that enliven our civil society; to our ecumenical and interfaith allies; to women and men of all religions (or none at all); to legal scholars; and to civic leaders.”

“With your continued help, we will not be divided, and we will continue forward as one,” the bishops said.

For the American Catholic bishops to unanimously endorse a statement describing the HHS sterilization-contraception-abortifacient regulation as “an unjust and illegal mandate” is significant because the bishops have also recently restated the Catholic teaching that “unjust laws” cannot be obeyed.

“It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty said in “A Statement on Religious Liberty” published April 12.

“An unjust law cannot be obeyed,” said the statement. “In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.”

“The Christian church does not ask for special treatment, simply the rights of religious freedom for all citizens,” said the statement.

Earlier this year, in a column published in his archdiocesan newspaper, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who formerly served as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that the HHS regulation showed that the “state is making itself into a church.” Unless something is done to stop it, the cardinal warned, the HHS regulation will mean the destruction of Catholic institutions in this country.

“What will happen if the HHS regulations are not rescinded?” Cardinal George wrote. “A Catholic institution, so far as I can see right now, will have one of four choices: 1) secularize itself, breaking its connection to the church, her moral and social teachings and the oversight of its ministry by the local bishop. This is a form of theft. It means the church will not be permitted to have an institutional voice in public life. 2) Pay exorbitant annual fines to avoid paying for insurance policies that cover abortifacient drugs, artificial contraception and sterilization. This is not economically sustainable. 3) Sell the institution to a non-Catholic group or to a local government. 4) Close down.”

The cardinal rebutted those who said the Catholic bishops were somehow interfering with the separation of church and state. Quite the opposite was happening, he said.

“The strangest accusation in this manipulated public discussion has the bishops not respecting the separation between church and state,” wrote Cardinal George. “The bishops would love to have the separation between church and state we thought we enjoyed just a few months ago, when we were free to run Catholic institutions in conformity with the demands of the Catholic faith, when the government couldn’t tell us which of our ministries are Catholic and which not, when the law protected rather than crushed conscience. The state is making itself into a church. The bishops didn’t begin this dismaying conflict nor choose its timing. We would love to have it ended as quickly as possible. It’s up to the government to stop the attack.”

Previously, Cardinal George had warned that he believes martyrdom is coming for Catholic bishops in this country.  "I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square,” the cardinal said in 2010.

Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, reflecting on Cardinal George’s words in a column of his own, conceded there might be “some hyperbole” in them, but warned Americans not to dismiss them “too quickly. The “highest levels of our federal government,” Bishop Sheridan said, are trying to push a “Communist understanding of ‘freedom'” on Americans of faith.

“While there may be some hyperbole to Cardinal George’s predictions, they should not be dismissed too quickly,” wrote Bishop Sheridan. “Attempts to push religion out of any meaningful place in public discourse are already being made--and at the highest levels of our federal government. The language of “freedom of religion” is being morphed into an affirmation of “freedom of worship.” It is freedom of worship that we are promised will be upheld by our government officials. In other words, it will certainly be permissible for citizens to pray in their churches or synagogues, but expressions of faith--especially when these are brought to bear on public policy--will not be welcome.

“This was the Communist understanding of 'freedom' when it came to people of faith,” wrote Bishop Sheridan. “There were a number of Christian church buildings that remained open in Moscow during the reign of Communism in Russia; and expressions of faith within the walls of those churches were tolerated. But any attempt to teach the faith or live it in the public square was met with harsh rebuke.”

Last Thursday, the Catholic Church began “A Fortnight of Freedom” to protest government attacks on religious liberty. The Fortnight pointedly began on the vigil of the Feasts of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher—both of whom were beheaded by King Henry VIII in 1535 for refusing to take an oath affirming Henry himself as the supreme authority over the church in England.

The Fortnight of Freedom will end on July 4, when the Catholic bishops hope that at 12:00 noon Eastern time Americans all across the nation will go out and ring bells to deliver the message that they want America to remain “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Click here to read the bishops’ unanimous statement, “United for Religious Freedom.”

Click here to read the bishops’ statement, “Our Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty.”