On August 1, 2012, health plans for most organizations will be required 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, but as Cardinal Wuerl has pointed out, not even Mother Teresa would qualify for these exemptions.
In other words, the Obama administration is forcing institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church to pay for coverage of contraceptives, “emergency contraception,” and sterilization. After being pressured by religious groups, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tweaked the mandate so that insurance companies would be forced to provide contraception instead of Catholic institutions themselves. But Catholic institutions would be paying insurance companies to provide birth control to employees, so the religious objections of Catholics have not been resolved. (Besides, since many Catholic companies and dioceses self-insure, the major sticking point remains for Catholics in a host of cases.)
If the Church did comply and provided contraception coverage to its employees, it would signify that the Church’s moral teaching on contraception could be changed. And the Church would instantly lose all credibility if She reversed herself on contraception or any of Her other moral teachings; 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 a serious blow to 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. President Obama refuses to budge on the matter. The Catholic Church is now celebrating a “Fortnight for Freedom” – two weeks of prayer and penance as part of a “great hymn of prayer for our country” – in response to the HHS mandate.
The Catholic Church can choose to respond to the HHS mandate in several different ways. Here is a brief overview of the ways the Church can choose to respond to it. This list will also examine historical precedents for these choices.
1) The “Nuclear Option” – Shutdown
If the Obama administration continues to force church-affiliated institutions to provide contraception to their employees, the Catholic Church may 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.
But the alternative for the Catholic Church is impossible. This would truly be the Church’s nuclear option – one She would take only if there were no other choice.
2) Passive Resistance
The Church could take a path of passive resistance – refusing to close affiliated institutions, while at the same time refusing to pay the fines mandated by the government as a penalty 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 – namely, the refusal to obey an unjust law. This has historical precedent in the civil rights movement. Civil rights figures adopted tactics of passive resistance to fight against 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 the government would be able to effectively punish Catholics without media or public outcry. In that case, those adopting this strategy would be punished by the government with little fanfare.
However, this option could potentially to make the Obama administration look very bad. Catholic charities punished or shut down by the government, because they refused to deny a key teaching of their faith, would draw the sympathy of fair-minded outside supporters, and could spark a massive public outcry.
3) 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 possible, but 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 with the issue of gay marriage. There is the possibility of an “October surprise” on the part of Obama; a decision to “give in” to the Church might take place to pacify recalcitrant Catholics near the election, if his poll numbers were bad enough.
However, this is very unlikely. Obama and his administration implemented this contraception decision in an election year. He has since sworn that he will not compromise on this issue. He and his feminist allies wanted this fight badly; he chose an election year to implement this decision.
This outcome would occur only if an incredible amount of pressure was brought to bear on the President.
4) Paying the Fines
Those who refuse to obey the mandate will be penalized with fines. Church businesses could pay fines (of $2000 for each individual employee employed by the institution), so that they would not have to pay insurance companies to cover contraception, “emergency contraception,” and sterilization.
For historical comparison, one would have to go back to Elizabethan England. During the Elizabethan era, refusal to attend established Anglican Church services resulted in fines. At first, the fines for not attending state-sponsored services were small. Later, the governments increased the fines to massive amounts, and only extremely wealthy Catholics could afford to pay those fines.
The likelihood of Catholic businesses paying fines to the government on a large scale is slim, for two reasons. The first is that Church businesses simply don’t have enough money to afford paying the government fines; only wealthy Catholic businesses could utilize this option. Also, this option would legitimize the mandate, effectively subordinating religious institutions to the state.
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?
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 this could not be implemented in all cases, and the institutions in question would not remain Catholic.) 4) Close down.”
So what will happen if the mandate remains in place? Individual Catholic businesses will adopt a combination of these paths. A few wealthy businesses may be able to pay fines to the government. 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.
However, it is difficult to say which option the majority of Church businesses will take, assuming the mandate remains in place until it is implemented. 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.