Recently the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a mandate: Virtually all employers, including Catholic schools, hospitals and social service agencies, must buy coverage for sterilization and contraceptives, including drugs that can induce an abortion, for their employees. Catholics and other people of faith are required to comply although in doing so they must violate their teaching and their conscience. If they do not comply, they face stiff financial penalties that will gravely impact their ability to fulfill the mission of service entrusted to them.
Yes, there is an exception to the HHS mandate. But for religious institutions to claim this exception, they must serve primarily members of their own church, synagogue or mosque, and so choose not to feed or clothe, heal or educate practically anyone of another faith or creed.
A long time ago, the Catholic Church received a mandate from a higher authority: “Go out to all the world and spread the Good News.” It is the mandate of Jesus Christ: “This is my command: Love one another.”
When people in need walk into a Catholic institution we serve them. We serve our neighbor based on need, not creed. The HHS mandate would reverse that, telling us we must serve based on creed not need for the government to consider us an organization deserving religious liberty. Here the HHS mandate steps on, indeed tramples, the mandate of Jesus Christ.
The effect the HHS mandate will have on our neighbors and on society is alarming. In short, the administration is dictating that Catholic institutions and individual employers violate what America has always considered inviolable—their religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
Today, due to the mandate of Jesus Christ, Catholic schools that choose to welcome non-Catholic students will be forced either to provide their employees coverage they consider morally offensive, or drop employee health coverage altogether and suffer a fine of $2,000 per employee per year.
The potential effect on institutions that serve the poor are horrific and ironically, stand as a roadblock, for example, to the very schools recently hailed at the White House for all they do for the U.S. For example, on January 25 at the White House ceremony, several schools drew high praise. The White House especially praised Annette Lentz of Indianapolis, who founded the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies. The White House noted that they are “open to children of all religions, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds.” It hailed Jesuit Father John Foley who founded the Christo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, that now serves as the model for 24 high schools serving 6,900 low-income youth. Not all of them are Catholic.
U.S. Catholic schools teach more than 300,000 non-Catholic students, 15 percent of them are not Catholic. In the inner-city, the non-Catholic student body can reach as high as 90 percent. More than 40 percent of the 900,000 students in Catholic colleges and universities are not Catholic. The University of Notre Dame would pay an especially heavy price—over $10 million annually—to avoid violating its own religious convictions.
Catholic hospitals will suffer a similar fate. They serve one of every six Americans who go through their front doors in search of medical care every year. None of them has ever been asked to produce a baptismal certificate. The new mandate, and its bizarre exemption, invites hospitals to move in this direction—at the expense of the common good—in order to preserve their own religious freedom.
In Washington, Providence Hospital each year treats 40,000 people in its emergency room, admits 13,000 overnight and provides outpatient services to another 60,000 people.
Not all of them are Catholic, and being a Catholic has never been a requirement to receive healing care. Now, according to HHS, it will be. Or else the hospital will receive punishing fines for refusing to violate its own moral teaching.
Last year alone, Catholic Charities served more than 10 million of the poor, the needy, and the suffering throughout our nation. Catholic Charities doesn’t know how many of those served were not Catholic, because they simply never ask. Our faith compels us to serve, not the faith of those we help.
Catholic ministries for the needy are as blind to race, creed, class, and gender as Jesus Christ, their founder. That any one of them, much less all of them, should be forced to choose between the Gospel mandate and the U.S. government’s health care mandate strikes at the very heart of the right to religious liberty on which our country was founded.
William E. Lori is bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., and chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty.