The HHS Mandate: A Question of Religious Freedom or the Life Issues?

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three part article that will discuss the current approach of the US Bishops in order to thank them and praise their efforts, while at the same time pointing out a certain oversight in their approach.  Following parts will look at the reasons not often mentioned for which the Administration is enacting the HHS Mandate as well as ideas on how most wisely to approach the question of contraception in the midst of the fight for religious freedom.

The Approach of the Bishops: Praise and A Question 

Stating What the Fight Is and Is Not About

It is wonderful to see the unity, work and leadership of the Bishops in the fight for Religious freedom. We should both thank God for and join with them in their focused attention on the wrongheaded general principles they list as built into the Mandate: (1) an unwarranted government definition of religion; (2) a mandate to act against our teachings; and (3) a violation of personal civil rights. Regardless of the specific content of this mandate (contraception), these wrongheaded general principles violate the nature of freedom and conscience, and they violate the laws and customs of the United States of America. This would also be true if the government had begun its attack on religious freedom by forcing the Amish to subsidize car sales on their property. To isolate and name the wrongheaded general principles is necessary and the Bishops have done this in a way perhaps unprecedented in our recent history.

The emphasis on isolating the general principles within the Mandate has led to many statements asserting what the fight is not about. This too, the Bishops have stated,

This is not about access to contraception, which is ubiquitous and inexpensive, even when it is not provided by the Church’s hand and with the Church’s funds. This is not about the religious freedom of Catholics only, but also of those who recognize that their cherished beliefs may be next on the block. This is not about the Bishops’ somehow “banning contraception,” when the U.S. Supreme Court took that issue off the table two generations ago. Indeed, this is not about the Church wanting to force anybody to do anything; it is instead about the federal government forcing the Church—consisting of its faithful and all but a few of its institutions—to act against Church teachings. This is not a matter of opposition to universal health care, which has been a concern of the Bishops’ Conference since 1919, virtually at its founding.

With this statement, I also agree and am thankful for it.

Nonetheless, although this is not about access to contraception, nor about banning it, this is, in fact, about contraception. Yet, many recent statements have asserted that this is not about contraception. For example, in a recent high-profile interview, Cardinal Timothy Dolan stated that “We have to be very vigorous in insisting that this is not about contraception. It’s about religious freedom.” And in a Wall Street Journal interview he emphasized the point by stating, “We’ve grown hoarse saying this is not about contraception, this is about religious freedom.”

In part 2 of this article, we will see that for the Administration this is, even primarily so, about contraception and only secondarily about religious freedom. Furthermore, while it is correct that the Church should not force people to do anything, there is a difference between forcing and explaining. Pope John Paul II once famously said, “The Church imposes nothing, She proposes.” By deliberately focusing the discussion absolutely and exclusively on religious freedom, the proposing of the Good News of Church teaching on matters related to the specific content of the Mandate (contraception, sterilization and abortion) is left undone in various settings in which it should be addressed to varying degrees. It is a perfectly legitimate question, after reading the Bishops statement of what this is not about, for a thoughtful reader to ask: What are those Church teachings that the government wants you to violate, and are they good or bad? To avoid dealing with that question at all costs has deleterious effects not only on human relationships, but also on this very fight for religious freedom.

Parables and Analogies

The Archbishop of Baltimore, William Lori, who is also chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty, in testimony before Congress on February 16, used his “Parable of the Kosher Deli” which noted that if the government was beginning its assault on religious freedom by making orthodox Jews participate in serving pork in their deli’s, any person of good will would easily grasp both the reason why religious freedom should be respected, and the silliness of not respecting it when people can easily buy pork (or contraceptives) inexpensively at the grocery store next door. This analogy is helpful in that it serves to isolate and highlight a very serious general dimension of the dilemma we are currently facing: namely, the complete dismantling of the First Amendment, which would open the door to legal intrusions on Religious freedom in many other areas. The parable is also excellent in that it aids in gaining the broadest possible coalition of concerned citizens, many of whom have no qualms about using contraception, but who share the concern about this very worrying precedent. Just as we Catholics would certainly join with the Jews in fighting such a mandate in order to preserve religious freedom, so many non-Catholics will join with us now. Bishop Lori’s parable is a very important part of this fight, and I applaud it for the reasons just given.

As a Catholic Christian, I know the Hebrew Scriptures contain Divine Law. The Divine Law to not eat pork does not apply to me as a Christian, but since I know the reality of and meaning of Divine Law, I have full respect for the obedience to it that many Jewish people practice, and have practiced for millennia. As an American citizen who believes in religious freedom, I also have deep respect for the decision of the Amish to not drive cars, and I understand the rationale behind their choice.

Having said that, it must be pointed out that there is a very specific difference in kind between the Catholic teaching that using contraception is immoral and the prohibition of driving and pork on the part of the Amish and the Jewish respectively (there are, of course, also many other differences in kind between those two prohibitions). The specific difference in kind that I am referring to goes to the very heart of human anthropology, and is rooted in the natural law. The richness of Catholic teaching on human sexuality also shows that the analogy of Bishop Lori, like all analogies, only goes so far. Perhaps in brief Congressional testimony it was wise to leave the analogy where he did, but strictly speaking, Bishop Lori’s parable cannot work on those who hold to a moral imperative to reproductive rights. If you asked the authors of the HHS Mandate whether they think Orthodox Jews are being immoral in not allowing their people to eat pork, or whether they think the Amish are immoral in not teaching their children to drive cars, they would likely say, “No, those things are not immoral.” However, they do think that the Catholic Church is committing an immoral, irrational and, they would probably say inhuman, act, indeed, an abuse against women in morally prohibiting contraception.

Warning about Future Ramifications

Another approach is that of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who in a widely read piece said,

If you haven’t already purchased the Archdiocesan Directory for 2012, I would suggest you get one as a souvenir. On page L-3, there is a complete list of Catholic hospitals and health care institutions in Cook and Lake Counties. Two Lents from now, unless something changes, that page will be blank.

Here too, I applaud Cardinal George’s letter which, besides accurately foretelling what will happen two Lents from now, is also supposed to rally the people to get up and do something to prevent hospital closures. I wonder though, whether without an in depth and personal awareness of the truth and goodness of Church teaching on human sexuality, most readers of this quote will see it as hyperbole. Explanations must accompany quotations like this, and readers are right to look for them.

Another well-known recent and often re-posted quote of Cardinal George with respect to future ramifications is this one: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

Explaining the View That This Is Not About Contraception

In a recent interview about the HHS mandate in National Review Online, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was asked about the fact that many Catholics use contraception and support abortion rights. He answered,

That’s the wrong question. Plenty of self-described Catholics also commit adultery and cheat on their taxes. That doesn’t make them right, and it doesn’t make their behaviors “Catholic.” The central issue in the HHS-mandate debate isn’t contraception. Casting the struggle as a birth-control fight is just a shrewd form of dishonesty. The central issue in the HHS debate is religious liberty. The government doesn’t have the right to force religious believers and institutions to violate their religious convictions. But that’s exactly what the White House is doing.

This answer adds another important dimension to the complexity of the debate. The Archbishop is saying that the administration is trying to make the public discussion about contraception, and that this is a form of dishonesty because it is really about religious freedom. He is correct to point this out, because the administration is trying to focus the fight on contraception with the specific purpose of making the opponents of the mandate seem out of touch with contemporary people and thereby to deflect attention from the danger posed to the First Amendment, which they seem bent on dismantling. I agree with that aspect of his answer, and it is very important that the wider public understand it.

Yet, there is a bizarre irony in this tactic of the administration because for them this really is primarily about abortion, sterilization and contraception. They just see a simultaneous attack on religious freedom as a powerful means to achieve that goal, since many religions oppose one or more of the items to be covered. Thus, the question asked is not the wrong question and it is not unrelated to, but rather has a direct bearing on this fight.

What is the Relation between The Threat to Religious Freedom and The Specific Content of the Mandate?

All of the above is excellent, and to be supported and praised. And so, what I am about to say should not be understood as a criticism of this amazing work of unity and speech in the public sphere. Yet, all of the above approaches have in common the complete separation of the threat to religious freedom from the specific content of the Mandate itself. This is mistaken from the point of view of truth and it endangers the success of the fight for religious freedom. The complete separation of these two dimensions contains the following false, if unintended, premise: that there is no link whatsoever between the specific content of the Mandate and the threat to religious freedom we face because of it. That is false. There are, in fact, numerous links, and we ignore them at our peril.

Part II: The HHS Mandate: This is About Contraception
Part III: The HHS Mandate: What Now, In Light of the Supreme Court Ruling?

Peter J. Colosi


Dr. Peter J. Colosi is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI.

  • Jennifer Feeney

    This was excellent. I keep pointing out to folks this…if the services in the mandate become legally mandated as standard care that all must provide, then abortion is next. The Supreme Court has already stated the need for abortion availability due to contraception failure (PP v. Casey). You can’t mandate contraception coverage and not also and mandate abortion coverage. That is where this is headed. So, yes, it is about religious freedom, but it is most definitely about contraception and abortion.

  • Iewhp

    I couldn’t agree more.  All these years after Humane Vitae and the bishops are still running away from it rather than embracing it.  It rings very hollow to me.  Actually,precisely  because they have not embraced it, we find ourselves in the situation we are in!  What exactly, in their minds, are they running from but the truth??  Archbishop Chaput is right to say “the government doesn’t have the right to force religious believers and institutions to violate their religious convictions”.  But honestly, who among the average Catholic laity would have known, never mind been convicted, that contraception, sterilization and the like are grave moral sins??  It hasn’t been taught.  And this is the demographic that Obama is taking advantage of – the Catholics, who for lack of robust teaching on the life issues,  likely  feels indifferent toward , if not supportive of, the HHS mandate, if indeed, it is registering on their radar at all!  The message to the Catholic masses over the past decades has been ‘freedom to choose’ when it comes to contraception/sterilization and even other related life issues.   In order for the religious freedom issue to ring true, truth must be vigorously taught.  What’s all the hoopla about religious freedom when fundamentally it is the truth that sets us free and it has yet to be taught!  Even without religious freedom, it is the truth that sets us free – religious freedom without knowledge of truth is not freedom at all when it comes to eternal life!

  • rtlpaula

    Thank you for putting this in writing. The HHS mandate most certainly is about contraception. President Obama’s administration did not issue a mandate to provide health coverage for the elderly, or cancer drugs, or anything that addresses a disease or illness. The mandate is to make contraception, abortion inducing drugs, and sterilizations more widely available – relentlessly continuing this administration’s rabid pro-abortion and population control efforts. Recognized, this is a timely opportunity for the Church to further clarify the beauty of its teaching on the truth of the sanctity of human life.

  • Clement_W

    Please do not forget that President Obama and the rest of the Administration spokespeople at all levels, Catholic or otherwise, have tried and largely succeeded in defining Abortion – in their words ‘Choice’ – and Contraception as a Women’s HealthCare Issue – thus making the normal physiological functioning of the Female Human Body, an ‘Illness’.

    It was not until recently that I realized what was truly meant when Christians refer to the Devil as the Prince of Lies. If defining even a scientifically proven and accepted fact is being defined as a lie, the Devil is alive and well AND in control, in our society.

    The Bishops, Priests, Nuns and the largely best educated segment of the country, the Catholic Laity should make a point of emphasizing this Redefinition of Normal Bodily Functions as Bodily malfunctions and therefore, Illness requiring remediation akin to spaying one’s dog or cat!

  • Scott Johnston

    Thank you for this very good article. I hope that this situation would be seen by the bishops as providing them an opportunity and giving them a national stage, so-to-speak, to joyfully propose the Catholic teaching on contraception to everyone.

    If we truly believe that contraception is an evil and thus harmful to the life of any human person who uses it, no matter his particular faith, it is an act of charity that we explain why and encourage–propose to–everyone that for the sake of the genuine health and human happiness of all people, contraception should be rejected.

    Do we who are Catholic truly believe this? Do the bishops truly believe this? I hope so. I pray we find the words and the conviction and the desire to confidently and joyfully say so.

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  • It’s about time someone stated this clearly.

  • Michael Szatkowski

    Excellent article!

  • DougIndeap

    I understand that some Catholics now think they and their religion are victims of the administration’s implementation of the health care law and that the law forces employers to act contrary to their consciences. I think, though, that they have been duped by their bishops and are being used to serve the bishops’ rather ordinary political aims.

    Notwithstanding the bishops’ arm waving about religious liberty, the health care law does not force employers to act contrary to their consciences. Contrary to bishops’ assertions and the widespread belief of those who trustingly accept their claims, the law does no such thing.

    Many initially worked themselves into a lather with the false idea that the law forces employers to provide their employees with health care plans offering services the employers consider immoral. The fact is that employers have the option of not providing any such plans and instead
    simply paying assessments to the government (which, by the way, would generally amount to far less than the cost of health plans). Unless one supposes that the employers’ religion forbids payments of money to the government (all of us should enjoy such a religion), then the law’s
    requirement to pay assessments does not compel those employers to act contrary to their beliefs. Problem solved.

    Some nonetheless have continued clamoring for such an exemption, complaining that by paying assessments to the government they would indirectly be paying for the very things they opposed. They seemingly missed that that is not a moral dilemma justifying an exemption to avoid being forced to act contrary to one’s beliefs, but rather is a gripe common to many taxpayers–who don’t much like paying taxes and who object to this or that action the government may take with the benefit of “their” tax dollars. Should each of us be exempted from paying our taxes so we aren’t thereby “forced” to pay for making war, providing health care, teaching evolution, or whatever else each of us may consider wrong or even immoral?

    In any event, those complaining made enough of a stink that the government relented and announced that religious employers would be free to provide health plans with provisions to their
    liking (yay!) and not be required to pay the assessments otherwise required (yay!). Problem solved–again, even more.

    Nonetheless, some continue to complain, fretting that somehow the services they dislike will get paid for and somehow they will be complicit in that. They argue that if insurers or employees pay for such services, those costs will somehow, someday be passed on to the employers in the form of demands for higher insurance premiums or higher wages. They evidently believe that when they spend a dollar and it thus becomes the property of others, they nonetheless should have some say in how others later spend that dollar. One can only wonder how it would work if all of us could tag “our” dollars this way and control their subsequent use.

    The bishops are coming across more and more as just another special interest group with a big lobbying operation and a big budget—one, moreover, that is not above stretching the truth.

    • I would like to point out that it’s not just the Catholics who are complaining and the HHS Mandate does indeed violate the 1st amendment.  They aren’t complaining about nothing.  I have read both the HHS Mandate and “Obamacare” in their entirety and if you truly think the Bishops have nothing to gripe about then I suggest you go back and read them again.  There is plenty wrong with both and the only people who have gotten a complete exemption for the HHS Mandate are the Amish.  No other Christians have gotten an exemption.  Individuals can get exemptions but employers cannot, that’s why people are so angry about this.  Oh by the way, “Obamacare” is going to raise the cost of health insurance for everyone for the next 10 years, at least that’s what the Congressional Budget Office said earlier this year.  So, the people who couldn’t afford it before, still can’t afford it.  So yeah, all of this has been great for this country and not a complete waste of time and energy at all.  This is a disaster and it’s going to get worse.     

      • DougIndeap

         I understand that some, including you, object to the law for policy reasons–unwise, too expensive, waste of time, etc.  That is fine–and also beside the point.

        My point is that since the law does not force employers to do anything contrary to their consciences (despite all the armwaving by those misled into believing otherwise), the law does not infringe on their religious liberty and there is no need to exempt them from the law.

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  • I love reading your articles, Pete. They’re always informative and you usually make me think about things in a different way. I like that you’re dividing it into three parts. Your assessment is more in-depth then most of the other stuff out there. Again, you don’t come off as pompous so your point gets across well. I was actually just thinking about an email you sent me a few weeks ago about the HHS article I was writing because I recently got into an argument with a friend about “Obamacare” and HHS.  I pointed out the unconstitutionality of the HHS Mandate and I told her I was not willing to give up any of my liberties guaranteed to me in the Constitution.  I also explained that my government would take away my liberties over my dead body.  She replied in a very unexpected way.  She’s very political and believes fully in the Constitution but her response was “Sometimes we must make great sacrifice for the greater good.”  For her and for many others, they’re perfectly content with handing over their liberties.  This is the United States of America for God sakes,  the chance that one of out liberties might be taken away by our government should never even be a discussion.  I cannot believe this is even up for debate.  I find this to be a ridiculous notion that we’re actually worried about losing our religious freedom.  I find it even more ridiculous that people seem completely ok with losing a liberty.  The United States used to be the greatest country in the world, other countries looked to us for guidance and answers but now we’re looked at as an embarrassment.  People want to come here because of our liberties.  If we allow one liberty to be taken away, this will give them precedent to take away other liberties.  What liberty’s next?  Freedom of Speech?  What really gets me is that Obama claims to be a Christian.  I think the president should look up the definition of Christian because his definition is entirely different then mine and Webster’s.  He should probably double check that.  All of this is so frustrating because like we’ve discussed, Pete, there is an easy fix but the government just won’t fix it.  It’s so stupid because all of this could be laid to rest with a few simple changes. I’m so tired of this debate, I’m tired of people saying that religious liberties don’t matter.  I want those people to look in the eyes of those whose faith is all they have.  Those who belittle religious liberties and belittle faith, I swear they’re just jealous of those who have faith.  Faith is a gift.  They look around at the world and see how crappy it is and blame God instead of placing the blame where it belongs.  People are the reason why the world is so crappy.  People are greedy, dishonest, and cruel.

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  • Brianagrzy

    prayers going up for our country and our church right now. today is a sad day. 🙁

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  • givelifeachance2

    This was an unusually clear and gracious explanation of why contraception is not like a ham sandwich.  It was not for nothing that Pope Paul VI addressed Humanae Vitae to _all_ men of good will.  May each of our individual bishops feel encouraged to spread the wisdom of our Church to same!

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