In our In Focus this week examining the “what next?” with regard to impending federal health regulations that would require Catholic employers and insurers to violate their consciences, the head of the U.S. bishops’ new religious liberty committee raises the possibility of the nuclear option — the mass closing of Catholic schools, charities and nonprofits. 

The committee chair, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., notes that defenders of religious freedom are pursuing happier alternatives in Congress and the courts. But the worst-case scenario is not far from mind. 

“If it comes to a point where all things have been exhausted and we are faced with the question of violating our consciences, or shutting down our ministries, I would not rule out the possibility of just saying, ‘No, we’re not going to do this,’ and taking the consequences,” Bishop Lori said. “At the end of the day, we really cannot violate our consciences.” 

The prospect of mass civil disobedience still remains distant. That it is being considered at all, however, underscores the seriousness of this unprecedented governmental imposition. 

It is worth briefly reviewing the massive positive impact Catholic American educational, health and social ministries are making today in communities across the country, and around the world. 

Consider schooling. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, there are 1.5 million children in U.S. Catholic elementary schools and 580,000 children in Catholic secondary schools. The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities reports an enrollment approaching 1 million students. 

Consider health care. The nation’s 630 Catholic hospitals, and 120,000 beds, account for 16 percent of all hospital admissions in the United States, and employ more than 640,000 people. In 22 states and the District of Columbia, they have an even higher presence proportionately. Compared with other nonprofits and public and for-profit hospitals, Catholic institutions nationally provide a higher percentage of public health and specialty services, including but not limited to drug and alcohol abuse treatment, obstetrics and birthing rooms, breast cancer screening, geriatric services, hospice, nutrition programs, palliative care and pain management programs. More than 30 percent of Catholic hospitals are in rural areas. 

Consider social services. In 2010, Catholic Charities spent $4.2 billion providing assistance to 10,270,292 different people — or more than 3 percent of the entire U.S. population. The services ranged from soup kitchens and food pantries, to counseling and mental health, to pregnancy and adoption services, to housing and employment services, and to disaster relief aid. Catholic Charities organizations employ some 84,000 people and work with 400,000 volunteers. 

The U.S. bishops’ overseas aid agency, Catholic Relief Services, assists more than 100 million people in more than 100 countries every year. In 2010, its program expenses of $780 million went mainly to emergency assistance, HIV and AIDS programs, agricultural services and health programs. It is consistently one of the highest rated charities in the country.  

Catholics have built up the nation’s largest network of social services not out of self-interest — the majority of the beneficiaries are not Catholics — but because of the Gospel call to love one’s neighbor. 

If an appeal to constitutional guarantees of religious liberty will not work, it would seem that the government out of sheer self-interest would not force this vast network to shutter its doors.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.