.- At their annual fall gathering in Baltimore, the U.S. bishops issued a message voicing their continued opposition to the federal contraception mandate and the threats that it poses to religious liberty.
“We stand together as pastors charged with proclaiming the Gospel in its entirety. That Gospel calls us to feed the poor, heal the sick, and educate the young, and in so doing witness to our faith in its fullness,” noted the Nov. 13 message from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Our great ministries of service … strive to answer this call every day, and the Constitution and the law protect our freedom to do so. Yet with its coercive HHS mandate, the government is refusing to uphold its obligation to respect the rights of religious believers.”
Passed unanimously, the message was the first statement issued by the general membership of the bishops’ conference since the previous day’s election of Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., as the group’s president and Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston as its vice president. Their terms officially begin at the conclusion of the bishops’ meeting on Nov. 14.
The bishops’ statement renewed their opposition to the HHS mandate, or federal contraception mandate, which requires employers to offer health insurance covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions, even if doing so violates their religious convictions.
Issued under the Affordable Care Act, the mandate is being challenged in lawsuits by more than 200 plaintiffs across the country. The lawsuits are currently in different stages of the judiciary process and could reach the Supreme Court in a future term.
Although the Obama administration went through a lengthy process to revise the mandate, religious freedom advocates warn that the changes are not sufficient to secure the constitutionally-protected right to free exercise of religion.
The bishops said that protection of religious freedom, “especially as threatened by the HHS mandate,” is among their priorities, and went on to quote the words of Pope Francis: “In the context of society, there is only one thing which the Church quite clearly demands: the freedom to proclaim the Gospel in its entirety, even when it runs counter to the world, even when it goes against the tide.”
They identified three ongoing concerns surrounding the mandate: a reduction of religious freedom to mere freedom of worship; the compulsion of Catholic ministries to participate in the providing of abortifacients, sterilization, and contraception; and the compulsion of Catholics owning for-profit businesses to act against Catholic teaching.
“Despite our repeated efforts to work and dialogue toward a solution, those problems remain,” they said. “Not only does the mandate undermine our ministries’ ability to witness to our faith, which is their core mission, but the penalties it imposes also lay a great burden on those ministries, threatening their very ability to survive and to serve the many who rely on their care.”
The lack of a solution to the impositions against religious freedom, the bishops continued, is “all the more frustrating,” as the Church “has long been a leading provider of, and advocate for, accessible, life-affirming health care.”
“We would have preferred to spend these recent past years working toward this shared goal instead of resisting this intrusion into our religious liberty. We have been forced to devote time and resources to a conflict we did not start nor seek.”
However, America's bishops reiterated their “resolve to resist this heavy burden” and to protect religious liberty. “Even as each bishop struggles to address the mandate, together we are striving to develop alternate avenues of response to this difficult situation.”
“We seek to answer the Gospel call to serve our neighbors, meet our obligation to provide our people with just health insurance, protect our religious freedom, and not be coerced to violate our consciences.”
They also expressed their gratitude to non-Catholic Americans who share a concern for the right to religious liberty, and said, “it is our hope that our ministries and lay faithful will be able to continue providing insurance in a manner consistent with the faith of our Church.”
“We will continue our efforts in Congress and especially with the promising initiatives in the courts to protect the religious freedom that ensures our ability to fulfill the Gospel by serving the common good.”
Concluding their message, the bishops invoked the example of St. Frances Cabrini, whose feast day was being celebrated. They said that the woman religious, who is a patron saint of immigrants, was “a brave woman who brought the full vigor of her deep religious faith to the service of the sick, the poor, children, the elderly, and the immigrant.”
“We count on her intercession, as united we obey the command of Jesus to serve the least of our brothers and sisters.”
Kim Daniels, spokesperson for the president of the bishops’ conference, said the statement shows that the bishops remain united and are not letting up on their efforts to secure religious freedom.
“This message was passed unanimously,” she told CNA. “It's remarkable that the bishops continue to stand united in their opposition to the mandate and in their desire to witness to the fullness of the Gospel.”
“The bishops are standing together as pastors to support the ability of Catholic ministries to fulfill their core mission of witnessing to our faith in its fullness while serving the common good,” she continued.
“Like others, the bishops are trying to come to grips with the complexities of this burdensome law, and each bishop is determining how best to respond. It's a very difficult situation and all are engaging in careful review.”