The recent Supreme Court decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act (commonly termed Obamacare) quashed the hopes of faithful Catholics that the Obama administration’s contraception mandate would be immediately repealed by the Supreme Court. The Catholic Church and the Obama administration are on a collision course.
On August 1, 2012, most health plans will be required by the federal government to cover contraception, “emergency contraceptives,” and sterilization procedures. The mandate will be extended to non-profit religious employers on August 1, 2013. Narrow religious exemptions have been granted for religious institutions that meet a four-part test, but as Cardinal Wuerl has pointed out, not even Mother Teresa would qualify for the religious exemptions granted by the government.
In other words, the Obama administration is forcing most organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church to pay for coverage of contraceptives, “emergency contraception,” and sterilization. After facing withering criticism from many sources, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tweaked the mandate so that insurance companies servicing Catholic organizations would be forced to provide contraception. But Catholic institutions would be paying insurance companies to provide birth control to employees, so the religious objections of Catholics remain unresolved. (Many Catholic companies and dioceses self-insure, so for those companies, nothing has changed.)
If the Church did provide contraception coverage to its employees, it would signify that the Church’s moral teaching on contraception could be changed. The Church would instantly lose all credibility if She reversed herself on contraception; if She could reverse Herself on one critical teaching at the whim of the state, any of Her teachings would be mutable.
Accordingly, the Catholic Church is treating the HHS mandate as an assault on religious freedom. Every single one of the Catholic bishops in America has sworn that the Church will not and cannot comply with the Obama administration’s mandate.
If circumstances remain unchanged before the implementation of the mandate, the Catholic Church can choose to respond it in several different ways. Here is a brief overview of the ways the Church can choose to respond to the mandate, complete with historical precedents for these choices.
1. The “Nuclear Option” – Shutdown
If the Obama administration continues to force church-affiliated institutions to provide contraception to employees, the Catholic Church could be forced to shut many facilities down. Rather than comply with the mandate, church authorities could shut down schools, hospitals, and charities.
In recent years, this has already taken place on a small scale. Rather than be forced to cater to homosexual couples, many affiliates of Illinois Catholic Charities shut their doors. Under similar pressure from the state to recognize homosexual couples, affiliates of Catholic Charities in Boston and Washington D.C. closed their adoption programs.
However, if Catholic schools and charities closed in large enough numbers, societal chaos would erupt. Tens of thousands of people are employed by Catholic-affiliated institutions, and millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike are served by these institutions. The suffering wrought by the decision to close the Church’s affiliated institutions would be immense.
This would truly be the Church’s nuclear option – an avenue She would take only if no other choice presented itself.
2. Paying the Fines
Those who refuse to obey the mandate will be penalized with fines. Church businesses could avoid the mandate by paying fines of $2000 for each individual employee employed by the institution.
For historical comparison, one can examine the British government’s attempt to repress Catholicism during the Elizabethan era. In the late 16th century, refusal to attend established Church of England services resulted in fines. At first, the fines for not attending state-sponsored services were comparatively small. Later, the British government increased the fines to massive amounts, and only extremely wealthy Catholics could afford to pay them.
The likelihood of Catholic businesses paying fines to the government on a large scale is slim, for two reasons. The first is that most Church businesses simply don’t have enough money to afford paying the fines the government would be imposing; only wealthy Catholic businesses could utilize this option. Also, this option would legitimize the mandate, effectively acknowledging that the state has the power to subordinate religious institutions to itself.
The Church could choose to take a path of passive resistance, refusing to close affiliated institutions while at the same time refusing to pay the government-mandated fines penalizing businesses for not complying with the mandate. This would force the government to punish these institutions in other ways.
Essentially, this option would be a form of civil disobedience: the refusal to obey an unjust law, which has historical precedent in the civil rights movement. Civil rights leaders adopted tactics of passive resistance to fight racial discrimination, crowding jails, refusing to pay fines, and not obeying what they rightfully considered to be unjust and discriminatory laws.
This is a potentially rewarding strategy, but one fraught with peril. The danger is that not enough Catholics would join in, allowing the government to punish Catholics without media or public outcry. However, this option, if adopted by enough Catholics, could shame the Obama administration into relenting. The spectacle of Catholic charities punished or shut down by the government because they refused to deny their faith would draw the sympathy of fair-minded citizens and spark a massive public outcry.
4. Obama Caves
This, of course, would be the ideal outcome. President Obama could simply rescind the HHS mandate regarding Catholics and contraception, and no conflict of religious liberty would exist.
It is very unlikely that this outcome will occur. If the Church and Her allies were able to bring enough pressure on Obama, he might be forced to bend, as he did on the issue of gay marriage. (Of course, Obama actually supports “gay marriage.”) There is the infinitesimal possibility of an “October surprise” – a decision to “give in” to the Church before the election, in order to pacify recalcitrant Catholics.
However, Obama and his administration implemented this contraception decision in an election year, and he has since sworn that he will not compromise on this issue. He and his feminist allies wanted this fight badly; nothing save incredible pressure or a miraculous change or heart would cause him to relent.
5. The Bishops Cave
Hypothetically speaking, the bishops could give in and permit Church-affiliated institutions to accept the HHS mandate. But there is absolutely no chance that this will happen.
As previously noted, every single Catholic bishop in the United States of America opposes the mandate. Besides, the Church could not defend Her teaching on contraception if Her institutions were forced to provide it to their employees. If the Church were to cave on this decision, She would immediately lose all moral authority.
So what will happen?
No one knows exactly what will happen if the mandate remains in place. It is most probable, however, that individual Catholic businesses will adopt a combination of the aforementioned paths. A few wealthy businesses may pay fines to the government and skirt the mandate. Poorer, smaller Catholic-owned businesses may be forced to shut down. Charities may continue to operate and refuse to pay the fines, daring the government to shut them down.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago succinctly summarized the Church’s options, declaring: “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. [I did not examine this option, because the institutions in question would cease to be Catholic.] 4) Close down.”
It is difficult to say which option the majority of Church businesses will take, if the mandate remains in place. But this much is clear. The Obama administration’s HHS mandate is nothing less than a declaration of war against the Catholic Church and religious liberty – and the Church will defend Her teachings on the morality of contraception with Her very life.
Paul Wilson works as a media analyst for the Culture & Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center. He is the founder and editor of Gray Matters, and is a regular contributor to the New Agora and LibertyBlog.org. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter at @PaulWilson34.
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