The Obama administration has rejected appeals to exempt religious-affiliated institutions, such as hospitals and universities, from the mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services requiring all health-insurance policies to include free coverage for contraceptives and other “preventive” services such as sterilization.

This was a serious mistake (see “An Illiberal Mandate,” December 20, 2011). The administration’s decision raises deep concerns about its understanding of the fundamental corporate and institutional nature of the Catholic Church and similar religious communities. The HHS decision comes perilously close to insisting that the government should determine what is or isn’t a religious organization or ministry. The reasoning behind restricting the exemption to institutions that primarily employ and serve coreligionists appears to be based on an essentially sectarian, and historically Protestant, understanding of “religion.” The Catholic Church, which understands its public presence to be vital to its identity and mission, should not be forced to abide by such restrictions.

Recognizing how potentially disruptive the decision is, the administration gave institutions an extra year to comply. Many hope that a compromise can still be reached. One possible solution would be to segregate funds the way the Affordable Care Act segregates funding for abortion. Employees seeking coverage for contraception would have to purchase that separately, but without incurring a financial burden. That administrative solution has worked to the satisfaction of Catholic institutions in Hawaii, where a state law mandates contraception coverage.

The hyperbolic response of the bishops is not likely to help fix things. “Let us make no mistake: the future of our freedoms in our beloved republic is threatened now as never before,” said Bishop William Lori, chair of the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. Bishops now face the choice of either violating their consciences or dropping health coverage for employees, Lori claims. But providing policies that allow individuals the option of using contraceptives does not involve any direct cooperation with evil on the part of the church. No Catholic physician is being forced to prescribe contraception or to perform sterilizations; no Catholic hospital is being forced to dispense contraception or permit sterilization procedures. If Catholic institutions must choose between complying with the law or dropping health-insurance coverage for employees, they should comply “under duress,” while working to modify or overturn the law. In this instance, the greater good of providing health insurance for all employees outweighs the “evil” involved in the possible use of contraception by some. A different calculus would be employed if the funding in question were for elective abortion, which is a much graver evil.

The bishops are right to oppose this mandate vigorously, but reversing the decision will depend in part on adopting a more measured tone—not lending credence to attacks suggesting the administration is motivated by anti-Catholic or anti-religious bias—and acknowledging that this is a legitimate health issue on which people of good will can differ. It is hard to ignore the fact that this is an election year, and that the presidential candidates of one party are rallying against a so-called war on religion. In this context, the bishops must not underestimate the dangers of partisan entanglement. For good and bad reasons, many bishops are deeply suspicious of the Obama administration. It would be a serious mistake, however, to let those suspicions create the impression that the church is allying itself with one party. As many religious champions of liberal causes associated with the Democratic Party discovered in the 1960s and ’70s, such entanglements usually discredit one’s cause, undermine the church’s teaching authority in general, and drive away significant segments of the faithful. If the bishops don’t want their concerns exploited for partisan uses, they have to make that point dramatically clear. So far they have failed to do so.

Nor should the bishops underestimate the potential this issue has for further dividing Catholics. In opposing the extension of access to contraception to tens of thousands of women, the church has once again maneuvered itself into a position where it will widely be seen—by Catholics and non-Catholics alike—as an institution in which celibate old men lay down the rules for how women should conduct themselves in the most intimate realm of their lives. Whether the bishops like it or not, the mandate is not only a religious-freedom issue; it is also a women’s issue. If the church cannot demonstrate that it understands the unique health needs and concerns of those most directly affected by the HHS ruling, it will lose the larger cultural and political argument while further alienating many within its own house.

Related: Bad Reaction, by the Editors

For more coverage of the contraception-coverage mandate, click here.

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