How Will the Bishops Respond to the Mandate?

A quiet, closed-door meeting in Washington next month will be of crucial importance in shaping the Church’s response to the nation’s biggest church-state crisis in decades.

When some 40 bishops of the administrative committee of the national bishops’ conference gather March 14-15 at conference headquarters, staring them in the face will be the Obama administration’s directive to Catholic institutions to violate Catholic teaching. A series of ugly events has set the stage for the bishops’ deliberations on what to do next.

Flash back to early November. President Obama and Archbishop (now cardinal-designate) Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, met privately to discuss topics including tensions in the religious liberty area. “I left the meeting somewhat at peace,” Archbishop Dolan later said.

That meant Obama was apparently considering giving church-sponsored institutions a comprehensive exemption from a proposed Department of Health and Human Services rule requiring virtually all private health care plans to cover sterilization, abortifacients, and contraception under the new national health plan called Obamacare.

But that was not to be. On January 20 HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, acting for the administration, released the rule’s final version. Its only concession to the Church was a year to comply—“a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” Archbishop Dolan said angrily.

Furious reactions from bishops and other Church sources greeted the announcement. The administration’s message to Catholics, one bishop said, was, “To hell with you.” Even the liberal Washington Post editorialized against the decision, while columnist E.J. Dionne, an Obama apologist, said Obama “botched” the decision and “threw his progressive Catholic allies”—like Mr. Dionne—“under the bus.”

To many people, the administration’s action looks a lot like a payoff to Obama’s supporters in the birth control-abortion industry. Administration sensitivity to potential criticism was suggested by the release of Sebelius’ announcement late in the day on a Friday—a familiar Washington tactic to downplay news coverage. In the same vein, the one-year delay in compliance (“more time and flexibility to adapt,” Sebelius said) appears intended to keep the issue out of the presidential campaign as much as possible.

All of which brings us to next month’s meeting of the bishops’ administrative committee. It will do the planning for the next general meeting of the American hierarchy in June when definitive action by the bishops is a good bet.

The bishops don’t have a  lot of options. Knuckling under is one, but it seems improbable, as does closing down thousands of Catholic institutions and programs.  Remedial legislation called the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act is currently pending in Congress, but it has no chance of becoming law with Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House. As for simply refusing to obey the HHS rule, it’s a last resort.

That leaves litigation. Two religiously sponsored lawsuits against the new mandate, involving Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina and Colorado Christian University, are now underway, with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty lead agent in both. The bishops could decide to back these legal challenges or others.

Religion in America scored a smashing 9-0 victory over the Obama. administration in the Supreme Court a few weeks ago. The unanimous court upheld the constitutional right of churches to decide ministerial personnel matters without government interference. If Obama is reelected—and depending on the outcome of broader challenges to Obamacare already before the Supreme Court—the new HHS rule also may also be headed to the court, with the official support of the Church.

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Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, DC. He is the author of more than twenty books and previously served as secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference.

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