Taking Liberties

For a century and a half the Catholic Church in the United States has served the American people with health care, education and social services. Even a few months ago it would have seemed preposterous to suggest that the U.S. government would place the future of those good works at risk. That seems to be what has happened, however, with a decision by the Department of Health and Human Services to allow only a narrow conscientious exemption to the employer health care insurance mandate of the Affordable Care Act, the administration’s signature health care reform law.

For U.S. Catholics as citizens, the administration’s failure to offer a broader exemption presents a grave test of the “free exercise” of religion protected by the Bill of Rights. For the narrow definition of religion in the new H.H.S. guideline is at odds with the millennia-old Catholic understanding of the church as a community of believers in service to the world. The H.H.S. definition would force the church to function as a sect, restricted to celebrating its own devotions on the margins of society. The ruling is a threat to our living as a church in the Catholic manner.


The controversial guidelines, announced on Jan. 20 by Kathleen Sibelius, secretary of H.H.S., restricts religious exemptions to those persons and institutions the administration defines as religious—namely, those that serve clear religious functions, employing primarily co-religionists and serving a largely denominational clientele. The administration rejected appeals from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Association for a broader conscience clause. Religiously sponsored institutions, like all other employers, will be explicitly required to provide coverage for contraception, sterilization and two potential abortifacients, services that are in violation of Catholic teaching. The administration has thus pushed the U.S. bishops into a destructive showdown over the future of Catholic health care, social services and higher educational institutions. It is a confrontation both sides should seek to avert.

The exemption devised by H.H.S. places Catholic institutional employers in an untenable position. The guidelines force them to cooperate, though indirectly, in grave wrongs by facilitating acts the church considers sinful. They also place dissenting institutions in the position of withdrawing health insurance benefits from their employees and from students at their colleges and universities. Employees of such institutions will have to seek out inferior and more expensive health plans on the open market, and their employers will face annual fines from the federal government for refusing to comply with the employers’ mandate.

A misunderstanding of the Catholic mission in the United States lies at the heart of this unexpected conflict. The Obama administration’s religious exemption covers only entities that serve patently religious functions, including parishes and parochial schools. But serving the broader community through hospitals, clinics, service agencies and institutions of higher learning is not an extraneous activity for the Catholic Church. It is a civic manifestation of the church’s deep beliefs in human dignity, solidarity with the suffering and forgotten, the importance of learning and commitment to the common good. Even as the church remains true to its moral teaching, it is called to remain open and engaged with the wider society. The administration must be led to understand that defining away the church’s service to the world infringes upon Catholics’ free exercise of religion.

Less, but equally real, is the threat to Catholic ecclesial identity created by exasperated responses from some church leaders, who unwittingly would acquiesce to the sectarian temptation presented by the state, jettisoning the church’s public institutions in the name of conscience, apparently without sober attention to the church’s historic teaching on remote material cooperation. By complying with similar state-level regulations, however, the practice of Catholic employers in a number of states without conscience exemptions (a full list is at americamagazine.org) suggests many have until now held a different reading of that tradition. In any case, the Catholic conscience needs to remain engaged in the public forum out of our faith in the church as a “sacrament” for the world.

Catholics have resisted authoritarian governments that attempted to confine religion to the altar and sacristy. What has distinguished Western democracies from authoritarian regimes has been not just the freedom of individual believers but especially the institutional freedom of the church. While Catholics should be prepared, if necessary, to resist such a policy in our own country, both sides should leave no stone unturned to find a workable solution without unnecessary confrontation. Practically, in an election year, a solution needs to be found as early as possible. Miscalculations from either side could prove devastating.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Barberi
5 years 11 months ago
Anyone familiar with the insurance industy knows that this tactic is absurd.

Most large employers self-fund their group health insurance plans. This means employers pay for their claims plus the insurance company's retention or administrative expense. If insurance companies are mandated to provide contraceptive coverage free of charge to employees of Catholic Institutions, they will pass on the cost to those employers.

To argue that contraceptive coverage is cost-neutral because the cost will be offset by less pregancies, abortions and medical care is true, but this is not how group insurance works. Many covered services reduce healthcare cost but are not offered free of charge. Why single out contraceptive services. The cost of many prescription drugs are offset by lower healthcare cost. You don't see insurance companies offering free drugs benefits.

If insurance companies are forced offer contraceptive coverage for free to Catholic Institutions because such coverage is so-called "cost-neutral", large employers will DEMAND the same.

It will be interesting to see how such a "compromise" will work.
Michael Barberi
5 years 11 months ago
 I will not repeat what has already been said. I add the following insightful contradiction:

There is a significant gap between contraceptive doctrine and pastoral practices that cause a contradiction over this entire issue of contraceptive coverage and everyday life. Permit me some latitude while I make my case.

 In the sacrament of reconciliation, there is a principle of graduation that is applied to habitual sinners. This principle was formulated primarily to resolve the moral and pastoral dilemma about contraception. Contraception is practiced by 97% of worldwide female married Catholics and it is an issue of conscience. Every parish priest knows that most married Catholics that line up each week to receive the Eurcharist practice contraception. These individuals also do not confess contraception as a sin in the sacrament of reconcilation because they don't believe it is a sin. Thus, the principle of graduation was introduced where the person over time was expected to reform his or her life through constant prayer, reflection, pastoral guidance and the frequent reception of the Eurcharist.

Since most Catholics do not confess contraception as a sin, those few that do have no real firm purpose of amendment. The problem was, after receiving absolution, why would a person go to confession everytime they contracepted, which is often every week. The answer: they did not. Conscious is the guide of every Catholic that practices contraception. Few, if any, priests and bishops have ever spoken from the pulpit or issued a bulletin that warned Catholics who contracept that they committ a sacriledge if they don't confess contraception as a sin before receiving the Holy Eurcharist. There are no fequent reminders from the pulpit or official communication because this would likely result in a significant reduction in Mass attendees, and their weekly contributions.

Now, consider the following: The principle of graduation is offered to Catholics who habitually contracept, but not to the divorsed and remarried, who are also habitual sinners in the eyes of the church. A contradiction? Now, the Hierarchy asserts that Catholic Institutions should not offer or pay for contraceptive coverage on the grounds that it is against their teachings. They want to deny Catholics medical necessary coverage but in the same breath they do not deny Catholics who practice contraception from receiving the Eurcharist. The church has yet to explain this contradiction.

Marie Rehbein
5 years 11 months ago
Michael, you set out the contradiction between the word and deed in the Church's teaching on birth control very clearly, in my opinion.  It is easy to see why bureaucrats in both EEOC and HHS would not understand that mandating coverage for contraceptives would set off cries that the First Amendment has been violated.
Rudy Rau
5 years 9 months ago
I object to the HHS ruling but find it curious that the bishops who did not endorse or support Personhood Amendments in various states are raising the roof over the HHS ruling. And, there have been times when little was being said by many of the bishops about abortion-the fight was being carried by lay people but in an election year, they suddenly find their voice??

Rudy Rau
5 years 9 months ago
Bill Carson-I'll bet that when John Paul II and the Vatican declared the invasion of Iraq a crime against God, you didn't think supporting the war was the 'work of the devil'.

Obama, like every one of us is a work in progress, as much a child of God as you or me. So your use of terminology is definitely on trhe extreme fringe.
Anne Danielson
5 years 2 months ago
The fact is, by taking liberties, for the first time in the History of this Nation, we have an administration who have become peddlers of contraception, thus promoting promiscuity, and justifying the sexual objectification of the human person. 


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Catholic women may be part of a Democratic voting wave in 2018. They are ready to welcome women deacons.
Mark M. GrayJanuary 16, 2018
This issue of America presents the findings of the most comprehensive survey of U.S. Catholic women ever conducted.
Matt Malone, S.J.January 16, 2018
All the women who responded to this survey still identify themselves as Catholic, however far they may have strayed from a consistent practice of the faith they were raised in.
The EditorsJanuary 16, 2018
Women religious from the Children of Mary Convent in Newark, Ohio, gather during the 2015 annual March for Life in Washington. (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)
America spoke to a number of young women religious about the vital contributions they and their fellow sisters make to the Catholic Church.
Our readersJanuary 16, 2018