Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia has held up the 16th century's Saint Thomas More as a model of courage for bishops in the face of the federal contraception mandate.

"America's Catholic bishops cannot simply grumble and shrug, and go along with the mandate now, without implicating themselves in cowardice," he wrote in a Dec. 19 column for The Witherspoon Institute.

"Their current resolve risks unraveling unless they reaffirm their opposition to the mandate forcefully and as a united body. The past can be a useful teacher. One of its lessons is this: The passage of time can invite confusion and doubt – and both work against courage."

St. Thomas More, a leading politician of his day, lived at the time of the Anglican schism, when King Henry VIII made himself head of the Church in England. English bishops protested the move at first, but with time all but one, Saint John Fisher, acquiesced to the move.

In his final writing, "scribbled in the Tower of London and smuggled out before his death," St. Thomas More reflected on the apostles' sleepiness at Gethsemane while Judas was betraying Christ.

Archbishop Chaput said that the saint "then applies the parable to his own day and the abject surrender of England's bishops to the will of Henry VIII."

St. Thomas could see the parallel between the apostles' sleeping and the surrender of English bishops in his time.

"More urges the bishops not to fall asleep 'while virtue and the faith are placed in jeopardy,'" Archbishop Chaput noted. "In the face of Tudor bullying, he begs them, 'Do not be afraid.'"

Archbishop Chaput believes this message is apt also for America in 2012, as next year the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act "takes force and the HHS contraceptive mandate imposes itself on Christian life."

He writes that there are multiple ways for the bishops to respond: refusing to comply, closing Christian institutions, finding a compromise, or "they can simply give in and comply with the government coercion under protest."

To choose the last option, Archbishop Chaput believes, would be "heavily damaging to the witness of the Church in the United States."

The contraception mandate, announced by the Health and Human Service department, requires that employers offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization, and drugs that can cause early abortions, even if doing so violates their conscience and religious belief.

More than 110 business owners, non-profit organizations, and religious charities have sued over the mandate, arguing that it violates their constitutionally-guaranteed right to religious freedom.

The cases are making their way through the court system, and on Dec. 18 the District of Columbia Appeals Court decided in favor of two Christian colleges saying that the Obama administration must rewrite the mandate so that it will not harm religious organizations such as the plaintiffs Belmont Abbey College and Wheaton College.

The appeals court gave the government a deadline of March 31, 2013 to rewrite the mandate.

The administration has professed that it is working on an accommodation for religious organizations, but one acceptable to Catholic consciences has not yet been offered.

The U.S. bishops' conference is planning a second Fortnight for Freedom event to be held next summer. The Fortnight will emphasize "the need for conscience protection," as well as faith and marriage, the conference stated.