Nation's bishops gather to preserve religious liberty as decision on health care law looms

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No housekeeping as usual. No perfunctory dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s. American bishops gathering in Atlanta for their biannual meeting have a sense of urgency as the deadline to comply with the controversial Health Care mandate is just weeks away.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, says, realistically, doomsday could come when none of the bishop’s advocacy, dialogues or appeals to the courts work.

Dolan says,  “If doomsday comes, what are we going to do? Are we going to disobey the government? Are we going to pay the fine? Are we going to go out of business?... I hope we don’t come to that, but we have to be realistic in anticipating it.”

Adding to the unknowns is the fact that Dolan and President Barack Obama have not spoken since February 10. There have been lower level talks between the administration and the USCCB, but the two have not been in dialogue for several months. Dolan believes it’s because the president is not ready to make a deal.

Dolan says,  “It’s not good to talk just to be talking. He knows where we stand, and we make it pretty clearly, we’ve made it pretty cogently I trust, and I think he knows, ‘well I owe it to them if we had something substantive to offer.’”

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    In the last few months, more than 40 Catholic Institutions and dioceses have filed a federal lawsuit against Health and Human Services and its health care mandate, which requires that all employers offer contraceptives and other benefits that bishops say violate church teaching. The Obama administration offered an accommodation that would make contraceptives free to the employee. The insurer would then pick up the tab. But many Catholic institutions are self-insured, so the accommodation still put them back in the same situation. The Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio dropped its health insurance coverage for students this fall, rather than comply with the federal mandate to provide free birth control.

    The other issue is how each side has defined the conflict.

    The Obama administration has defined it more narrowly as being about contraceptives and reproductive rights.

    The bishops, however, say this is about the much larger foundational issue of Religious liberty, and that the government can’t define for them what constitutes a church.

    Dolan says, “We’re talking about immigration, about the identity of Catholic colleges. We’re talking about labor law. We’re talking about the definition of ministers. We’re talking about refugees. We’re talking about victims of trafficking ... and yes, we’re talking about contraception.”

    These are all areas where the Catholic Church is active as part of its ministries and would be affected by U.S. policy requirements.  For instance, Catholic Relief Services brings emergency care to the very poor in Third World countries. Seventy percent of its funding comes from the U.S. government. But it’s a competitive process. And preference would be given to agencies that comply with the government’s mandates on contraceptives, adoption, foster care, etc.

    But the bishops are facing criticism from many in their own flock. Catholics For Choice, a liberal, lay Catholic organization, issued a release rejecting the bishops’ attempt to “redefine religious freedom.” The release stated that, “The bishops’ discussion of religious freedom in Atlanta was a travesty, consisting of patting themselves on the back about their campaign to have the right to impose their beliefs on the entire American population.”

    But Dolan’s heard that argument and says, “Whoa! Who’s imposing whose views here?”

    “We’re not the ones who asked for this fight. Things were existing just fine and then they said ‘oh guess what, we have a view that certain services should be available to everyone and paid for, and we’re going to impose that view on you so you go ahead and pay for it. And we say, you want to do that fine, don’t make us do it and don’t define what our ministries have to do to get out of that violation of conscience. So the imposition, the lines in the sand seem to be coming from the other side.”

    Looking forward, the bishops are gearing up for a two-week, nationwide campaign starting next week called “Fortnight for Freedom.” Some seventy dioceses, and growing, across the country will sponsor prayer, sermons and town hall meetings to inform the faithful about what the church is facing.

    Depending on what poll is read, Catholic support for President Obama is either slipping or stable. But for his part,  Dolan won’t project what the political implications of this Catholic campaign could be, as the November presidential election looms on the not-so-distant horizon.

    He says, “We do know that positions we take, principles we articulate, sometimes have an impact on a given party. But that’s not of our choosing.”

    All of the bishops’ plans could change dramatically, depending on how the Supreme Court Rules on the constitutionality of the health care law. A ruling is expected any day now. And it is ever on the minds of the bishops. And until the court announces its decision, the Catholic Church will proceed with its current agenda.