Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York is urging his fellow bishops to “prepare for tough times” after the Obama administration told the bishops’ conference that it is not willing to address religious liberty concerns raised by its contraception mandate.
In a March 2 letter to all U.S. bishops, Cardinal Dolan explained that White House officials told staffers from the bishops’ conference at a recent meeting that revisiting the mandate or broadening the exemption in order to address “the broader concerns of religious freedom” is “off the table.”
Instead, the administration encouraged the bishops to listen to those who accept the new policy.
“The White House seems to think we bishops simply do not know or understand Catholic teaching,” the newly-elevated cardinal said.
He stated in his letter that “religious freedom is under attack” and that “we will not cease our struggle to protect it.”
The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also outlined ways in which the conference will continue its “strong efforts of advocacy and education.”
He said that the bishops’ conference is working to provide catechetical resources on the Church’s teaching about religious freedom, as well as liturgical aids to encourage prayer and inform Catholics about ongoing plans to resist the threats to religious liberty.
“We did not ask for this fight, but we will not run from it,” he said.
Cardinal Dolan then briefed the U.S. bishops on current efforts to fight the mandate, which was issued Jan. 20 by the Obama administration and will soon require employers to offer health care plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their consciences.
After an outcry from people across the political and religious spectrum, President Obama promised an “accommodation” for religious freedom on Feb. 10. Under the proposed change, religious employers would not purchase the controversial coverage directly, but would instead be required to buy health care plans from insurance companies.
But Cardinal Dolan insisted that the revised mandate does not address deeper concerns of religious freedom and the administration’s attempt “to define the how and who of our ministry.” Nor does it offer a solution for the many self-insured ministries or individual believers who wish to follow Church teaching, he said.
Although the bishops have accepted the president’s invitation to “work out the wrinkles,” the process “seems to be stalled,” Cardinal Dolan told his fellow bishops.
He stressed the importance of unity in finding other ways to fight the mandate and assured the bishops that “ample time” would be dedicated to the subject at the conference’s upcoming Administrative Committee meeting and the June Plenary Assembly.
In the meantime, he said, the bishops remain committed to “seeking legislative remedies” for the mandate. However, he voiced his concern about a recent Senate debate in which the issue of religious freedom was obscured under claims that the matter is solely about women’s health.
“We will not let this deception stand,” he said, adding that “the Church hardly needs to be lectured about health care for women” because, due largely to the work of religious sisters, the Church is “the largest private provider of health care for women” in the United States.
“Perhaps the courts offer the most light,” he suggested, noting that the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a church’s right to define its own ministry. He said that the bishops’ conference will release more information soon about currently-developing judicial efforts to fight the mandate.
Cardinal Dolan said the bishops will continue pursuing multiple avenues to repeal the mandate, or at least to institute a wider exemption, “so that churches can be free of the new, rigidly narrow definition of church, minister and ministry.”
He expressed a willingness to work with those of “any party” who are committed to defending “the timeless and enduring truth of religious freedom.”