In the week after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Ser vices told individuals and institutions that oppose contraception “to hell with you,” as one bishop put it, members of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy were mobilizing their followers to fight back. Bishops across the country prepared letters to be read at Masses on the weekend of Jan. 29. “We cannot—we will not—comply with this unjust law,” declared Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix in a Jan. 25 diocesan letter.
In a shock to many Catholic supporters of the Obama administration, the secretary of H.H.S., Kathleen Sebelius, announced on Jan. 20 that the agency would enforce a narrowly worded religious exemption on new health insurance plan guidelines. According to the new requirements, employer-financed health plans must provide an array of contraceptive options to women without requiring a co-pay or deductible, including sterilization and birth control drugs that may act as abortifacients. Instead of broadening a religious exemption to the new requirements as many hoped, Sebelius merely extended a one-year grace period for religious employers to comply with the new guidelines.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 25, Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the H.H.S. decision rejected “loud and strong appeals” from “hundreds of religious institutions and hundreds of thousands of individual citizens.” He said it is naïve to think that contraception and sterilization will be “free” under the H.H.S. mandate. “There is no free lunch, and you can be sure there’s no free abortion, sterilization or contraception,” he wrote. “There will be a source of funding: you.”
Speaking that evening at Fordham University in New York, the archbishop said that President Obama had called him on the morning of Jan. 20 “to tell me the somber news” before the H.H.S. decision was announced publicly. He said he felt “terribly let down” and found it difficult to reconcile the decision with what the president had told him during a meeting in November—“that he considered the protection of conscience sacred, that he didn’t want anything his administration would do to impede the work of the church that he claimed he held in high regard, particularly in the area of health care, education, works of charity and justice.”
One of the most strongly worded reactions came from Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh, in a column titled “To Hell With You.” Sebelius and the Obama administration “have said ‘To hell with you’ to the Catholic faithful of the United States,” Bishop Zubik wrote. “To hell with your religious beliefs. To hell with your religious liberty. To hell with your freedom of conscience. We’ll give you a year, they are saying, and then you have to knuckle under.”
He called on Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh to “do all possible to rescind” the mandate by writing to President Obama, Sebelius and their members of Congress about this “unprecedented federal interference in the right of Catholics to serve their community without violating their fundamental moral beliefs.
Although parish and diocesan offices and primary and secondary schools will be exempt from the new guidelines, Catholic colleges, universities, hospitals and other social services will not be. Administrators at many Catholic institutions complain that because of the narrow exemption they may be forced to stop providing health insurance for employees or eliminate services to non-Catholics.