On the last weekend of January, priests in Catholic churches across America read extraordinary letters to their congregations. The missives informed the laity that President Obama and his administration had launched an assault on the church. In Virginia, Catholics heard from Bishop Paul Loverde, who wrote, “I am absolutely convinced that an unprecedented and very dangerous line has been crossed.” In Phoenix, Bishop Thomas Olmsted wrote, “We cannot—we will not—comply with this unjust law.” In Pittsburgh, Bishop David Zubik wrote that President Obama had told Catholics, “To Hell with your religious beliefs.” Bishop Daniel Jenky of Peoria asked his flock to join him in the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, which concludes: By the Divine Power of God / cast into Hell, Satan and all the evil spirits / who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
It was a remarkable moment, in part because despite their stern reputation, most Catholic bishops are not terribly conservative. They tend to be politically liberal and socially cautious. If they were less holy men, stauncher conservatives would call them squishes. Real live conservative bishops are so few and far between that whenever one appears on the scene, such as Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, he’s seen as a vaguely threatening curiosity. You can tell when a bishop is conservative because you will hear him referred to as “hardline” or “ultra-orthodox,” so as to mark him apart from the rest of the herd.
But what made the moment even more remarkable is that the bishops were not exaggerating. It is now a requirement of Obamacare that every Catholic institution larger than a single church—and even including some single churches—must pay for contraceptives, sterilization, and morning-after abortifacients for its employees. Each of these is directly contrary to the Catholic faith. But the Obama administration does not care. They have said, in effect, Do what we tell you—or else.
The beginnings of this confrontation lay in an obscure provision of Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which stated that all insurers will be required to provide “preventive health services.” When the law was passed, “preventive” was not defined but left to be determined at a later date.
This past August, Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius finally got around to explaining the administration’s interpretation of the phrase. Based on a recommendation from the Institute of Medicine, the administration would define “preventive health services” to include contraceptives, morning-after pills, and female sterilization. And they would interpret the “all insurers” section to include religious organizations, whatever their beliefs.
Sebelius included one small conscience exemption: A religious employer who objects to medical treatment aimed at prevention of the disease commonly known as “pregnancy” may leave it out of their health insurance coverage provided the employer satisfies three criteria: (1) It has religious inculcation as its primary duty; (2) It primarily employs people of the same faith; and (3) It primarily serves people of the same faith. This fig leaf is enough to cover most small churches—so long as your parish employs only a couple of priests and a secretary, it would probably get a pass. Larger institutions would not.
In the Catholic world, for instance, a diocesan office often employs lots of people—lawyers, janitors, administrative staff—who are not necessarily Catholic. And the duties of such offices extend far beyond inculcation of the faith—to include charity, community service, and education. Or take Catholic universities. There are more than 200 of them, serving some 750,000 students. They clearly do not fit the exemption. Neither would any of the 6,980 Catholic elementary or secondary schools. Nor the country’s 600 Catholic hospitals; nor its 1,400 Catholic long-term care centers. Ditto the network of Catholic social services organizations that spend billions of dollars a year to serve the needy and disadvantaged.
As soon as Sebelius released this decision, the Catholic church panicked. The Conference of Catholic Bishops reached out to the administration to explain the position in which it had put them. But the tone of their concern was largely friendly: Most Catholic leaders were convinced that the entire thing was a misunderstanding and that the policy—which was labeled an “interim” measure—would eventually be amended.