It may be too much to say that the Catholic Church in this country owes the Obama administration a wry note of thanks, but it has managed to do the near impossible: It’s united Catholic conservatives and liberals. 

It did so by confirming regulations forcing Catholic organizations and institutions to provide contraceptive and sterilization services under new health care regulations. While parishes and dioceses will be excluded, organizations as diverse as hospitals, universities, charities, publishing houses and, of course, small businesses owned by Catholics will all be forced to provide services that violate the teachings of the Church and their beliefs as Catholics. 

The administration’s decision has mystified some pundits like National Public Radio commentator Cokie Roberts and angered others like Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne — both of whom would consider themselves liberal Catholics. Roberts expressed puzzlement that a Democratic administration would pick a fight with the Catholic Church in an election year, especially when the president cannot win without the Catholic vote in key battleground states. 

Dionne put it more bluntly: The president threw Catholic supporters of health care reform “under the bus.” Those Catholics lying under the tires include Sister Carol Keenan, president of the Catholic Health Association, who went out on a limb to support the president’s health care proposals two years ago, and Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame.  

That this decision has grave implications for Catholic Americans was acknowledged by none other than the president himself, who personally called the U.S. bishop’s head to inform him there would be no conscience protection for anything other than formal Church institutions.  

Catholic leaders are seething that private assurances of respect for Catholic conscience concerns were nothing more than empty words, and that Catholic organizations have been put in a position of having to choose between offering health benefits and following its own doctrine. 

The administration may have believed that because surveys show that many Catholic couples use contraception, such a coercive regulation would be tolerated. But while Catholics may not practice what their Church preaches, they also understand that the Church is being forced to abandon its own principles. This would seem to be a violation of the guarantees of the First Amendment, but it is most certainly a violation of the rights of conscience. 

At least 126 bishops have already spoken out against the proposed regulations, as have many pastors. Three bishops so far have said they have no intention of complying with the law, and more are likely to make the same commitment.  

We salute the bishops’ intent to draw a line in the sand, and we urge Catholics to stand united with them.  

First, we must stay informed. This publication will be following the issue closely, and information also can be found at www.usccb.org/conscience. Second, all of us must make our political representatives know that these regulations are unacceptable. More than that, Catholics in both the private and public sectors should begin exploring their options, from legal challenges to the possibility of civil disobedience.

All Catholics citizens have a stake in this battle. We cannot surrender on this issue. Not only is it a violation of our religious liberty today, but it may well lead to ever more coercive and immoral impositions by the state upon religious believers in the future if it is allowed to stand.

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