Bishops vow to continue fight against mandate
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore updates U.S. bishops on their efforts to defend religious liberty at their annual fall meeting in Baltimore Nov. 12. CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec

The re-election of President Barack Obama raised an obvious question in many people’s minds: Are the Catholic bishops in the HHS mandate fight to stay? 

The answer now is clear. It’s yes. 

“Right now, the only thing we’re prepared to do is not give in.… No door is closed except the door to capitulation.” That was how Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, put it when replying to a reporter’s question about how the bishops will respond if the Obama administration does not change its position by Aug. 1.

Potential dangers

As matters stand, that’s when the HHS mandate comes into force for religious institutions. Potentially huge penalties face those that refuse to comply with the Department of Health and Human Services rule requiring them to provide employee health coverage for contraceptives, abortifacient drugs and sterilizations. 

HHS announced the mandate a year ago as part of its implementation of the Affordable Care Act — the sweeping new health legislation commonly called Obamacare. 

At a Nov. 13 news conference in Baltimore during the fall general assembly of the USCCB, Cardinal Dolan was asked if the bishops’ opposition to the mandate puts them and the Obama administration on a “collision course.” 

“Could be,” the cardinal answered. He added, nevertheless, that the bishops still hope for the “accommodation” promised months ago by Obama or, that failing, for a legislative remedy supplied by Congress or a favorable outcome from the 30 anti-mandate lawsuits brought by Catholic dioceses and Catholic and non-Catholic institutions in courts across the country.

Back to work

With the Democrats in control of the Senate, however, and Obama’s ability to veto legislation, the only relief available to the Church in this particular scenario appears to reside with the courts. 

Immigration Reform
During the bishops’ fall general assembly, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, released a statement calling for early action by President Obama and Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. The immigration issue is expected to be a major item on the legislative agenda next year. Archbishop Gomez urged the administration and Congress to “seize the moment” after the elections and called for bipartisan cooperation to win passage of a bill. The approach should reflect an immigration policy “which upholds the rule of law, preserves family unity and protects the human rights and dignity of the person,” he said. The American bishops have supported comprehensive immigration reform for many years.

Cardinal Dolan said the bishops had suspended crisis planning while waiting to see how the presidential election would turn out.  

Now, with Obama in office for another four years, the bishops would be getting back to work on that, he added. 

Many observers suspected that would begin as soon as the next day, when, following two days of open sessions, the bishops were to wind up their general assembly with a daylong executive session followed by a morning of prayer. 

Earlier, in open session, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, added to the image of a group that had just begun to fight. He gave a feisty report on the committee’s activities in the year since its establishment a year ago. “We’re going to stay the course.… We’re resolute,” he declared. 

Archbishop Lori said the bishops’ conference is participating in a continuing process of “rulemaking” intended to produce modifications in the HHS mandate — changes that, in the best outcome, could make it acceptable from the Church’s point of view. 

But, he told a news conference later, the bishops have no way of knowing how the rulemaking will turn out. For now, he added, the HHS mandate remains on the books in its original form, including an unacceptably narrow definition of what constitutes a “religious” institution eligible for exemption from the mandate.

Penance document

In other actions, the bishops adopted a document on Sunday homilies and a short statement exhorting Catholics who’ve stopped receiving the Sacrament of Penance to return to it. Three out of four American Catholics now say they seldom or never go to confession. 

Archbishop Gomez

The penance document, intended for use by dioceses and parishes next Lent, calls for making the sacrament available at times that are “convenient and plentiful.” The bishops voted to amend it to make the point that under Church law Catholics also have an obligation to confess serious sins at least once a year. 

“We bishops and priests are eager to help you if you experience difficulty, hesitation or uncertainty about approaching the Lord in this sacrament. If you have not received this healing sacrament in a long time, we are ready to welcome you,” the exhortation says. 

The document on preaching says homilies should create a “dialogue” between Scripture and “the Christian life of the hearer.” It notes that today’s homilist faces “a congregation that is more culturally diverse than previously, one that is profoundly affected by the surrounding secular context and, in many instances, inadequately catechized.” 

The bishops voted 134-85 to accept a statement expressing concern for people hurt by the economic slump, but because conference rules required a two-thirds majority — 152 votes — the document technically failed to pass. 

During a lengthy debate the draft appeared bogged down between bishops who thought it was too short and didn’t say enough and bishops who felt it was too long and said too much.  

The USCCB is expected to make a statement on the economy soon. 

At Cardinal Dolan’s urging, in a unanimous vote, the bishops told the New York archdiocese to move ahead in seeking Dorothy Day’s canonization as a saint.  

Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was a social activist and advocate of the poor who died in 1980. The cardinal called her “a saint for our time” who had lived an “immoral lifestyle” before experiencing a profound religious conversion. 

The bishops also approved a 2013 USCCB budget totaling $220.4 million and OK’d a plan for a new national collection every three years to support the Archdiocese for the Military Services. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.