Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

HHS mandate might awaken the sleeping Catholic conscience

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 03, 2012

"In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences," said New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan about the Obama administration’s new mandate for contraceptive coverage in health-care policies.

Sad to say, we Catholics have done it before. We have found ways to violate our consciences—or at a minimum, to still their cries. We’ve learned how to make peace with immoral policies, to accept the unacceptable.

Will we do it again? Will American Catholics put their consciences to sleep? Will we discover excuses for begging out of the political battle that our bishops have now joined? Count on it: some of the best liberal minds at our Jesuit-run universities are working on that project right now. Given a year, they will produce plenty of arguments in favor of the Obama administration, and against the Catholic hierarchy.

This is the story of the past 40 years, isn’t it? Church leaders take a clear stand on a controversial issue, and then dozens of dissenting Catholics—priests and pundits and theologians and even the occasional bishop—examine the argument minutely, finding difficulties and loopholes and exceptions and objections and nuances, and conclude that the Church is not teaching with authority and Catholics can safely ignore the official statements.

Through all those years of dissent Catholics have grown accustomed to backpedaling, ceding ground to more determined advocates of liberal ideology. We have found, to our shame, that we can live comfortable lives in a society that allows legalized bloodshed and mocks marriage. We disapprove of abortion and euthanasia and homosexuality and sterilization, and we state our disapproval occasionally for the record. But we have reasoned that as long as we are not participating directly in those actions, we need not hold ourselves responsible.

Now we can no longer fall back on those half-hearted arguments about our own ritual purity. With the new HHS mandate, Catholic institutions will be ordered to do something that Catholic institutions cannot do. Unless the mandate is reversed, Catholic institutions will face a fateful choice between the authority of the Church and that of the government.

The many American bishops who have spoken out against the mandate (and God bless them for it!) have framed this argument as a religious-freedom issue. So it is. But this issue poses the question of religious freedom in a particularly acute fashion. We Catholics are not asking simply to be let alone on Sunday mornings to worship in peace; we are asking not to be compelled to do something that is gravely wrong. We are not merely asking the government to remain neutral on religious issues; we are asking the government not to intervene aggressively on one side (the wrong side) of a moral debate.

Some pundits have suggested that the HHS mandate, in its effect on Catholic institutions, is tantamount to a policy that would require Orthodox Jewish institutions to buy pork for their employees. Not so. My Orthodox Jewish friends do not object if I eat pork. Eating pork is morally objectionable for them, because of the laws of their faith.

Contraception, on the other hand, is inherently wrong. The Church directs Catholics to shun the use of contraceptives not because of some private in-house rule, but because contraception violates the natural law and degrades the marital act. Americans today think of birth control as a “Catholic issue,” but the natural-law argument applies with equal force to everyone, Catholic or not.

Why is it, then, that so many people think the prohibition on contraception applies only to Catholics? Is it because so many other religious groups, once united with the Church on the subject, have come to embrace the contraceptive culture? No doubt. But we should be honest enough to recognize another important factor. Catholics have compromised for years on this issue. Rather than fighting against the acceptance of birth control, and protesting the use of our tax dollars to fund contraceptive campaigns, we have retreated into our denominational shell, and pretended that we can tolerate the problem as long as we are not expected to buy the Pill.

Worse than that, Church leaders have tacitly accepted the fact that a huge majority of Catholic couples use contraception. The Church’s teaching is tough to accept, and the peddlers of exceptions and compromises have won the day. Looking out over their congregations on Sunday mornings, Catholic priests can be reasonably sure that at least 80% of the couples of child-bearing age are using some form of artificial contraceptive. But the priests do not preach on that topic, and the young couples do not repent. Yes, we can certainly learn to put our consciences to sleep.

For our bishops, this routine acceptance of contraception—the product of two generations of timidity and dissent—poses an immense practical problem for this year’s battle against the HHS mandate. How can we persuade the great majority of Catholics that it is morally reprehensible to pay for contraceptives, when so many Catholics pay for contraceptives out of their own family budgets?

If the bishops will have trouble mobilizing 70 million American Catholics, they will face equally difficult challenge in persuading Catholic politicians to support them in this battle. Dozens of prominent Catholic politicians have already defied the Church to vote for legal abortion, same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research and assisted suicide. Here too the problem is the result of many years of compromise. Having failed to exercise ecclesiastical discipline on public officials who support the “culture of death,” our bishops have no reason to expect that Catholic politicians will suddenly fall into line with their statements on the HHS mandate.

Like any successful politician, President Obama knows how to count votes. He announced the HHS mandate because he is confident that the bishops cannot block his plans. No doubt he anticipated a strong backlash from the American hierarchy, but he also counted on strong support from his ideological allies. And I feel sure he believed that the Catholic opposition would eventually fade—as Catholic opposition has faded so often in past years.

But this time President Obama may have miscalculated. This year’s battle could be different; Catholics may be ready to take a firm stand. Our bishops have responded to the challenge with a vigor, passion, and determination that I have never before witnessed. They seem to understand that on this issue a political defeat would be devastating, yet a unilateral surrender would be even worse. That sort of leadership could energize Catholics in the pews, and produce a groundswell of unabashed Catholic activism. The American Catholic conscience has been dozing for years; arouse it, and who knows what might happen?

To win this battle, we must be confident—confident not only that our cause is just and arguments are persuasive, but also that our allies are firmly committed, and there will be no retreat this time. There is no more ground that can safely be ceded, no more room for compromise. We cannot accept the HHS mandate. If that means preaching unpopular truths, so be it. If it requires sacrifices, we must make them. If the mandate goes into effect despite our best efforts, Catholic institutions must resist.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Feb. 11, 2012 8:13 PM ET USA

    "Sleeping Catholic conscience"? I daresay it's not sleeping. Rather, it's completely altered and is no longer Catholic. Oh, there are Catholic vestiges to it, but too many Catholics are now dominated by hedonism and the "I'll do as I damn well please with no old man in a funny hat telling me what to do" syndrome.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 10, 2012 4:07 PM ET USA

    Bellarminite1--Sad, but completely understandable. Priests tell me that in this diocese, they are not allowed to preach on contraception from the pulpit, and may only speak about it in the confessional. So how many Sunday Mass Catholics will they see there?

  • Posted by: Bellarminite1 - Feb. 09, 2012 11:36 AM ET USA

    Sad to say, I've heard there are Sunday Mass Catholics who were surprised to find out that the Church had any problem with contraception. This is the first they've heard of it.

  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - Feb. 06, 2012 9:18 PM ET USA

    I hope and pray that this awakens our bishops, but I can't help but believe that if they get this part of Obamacare removed, then they will be back to supporting the bill like they did before. Their argument centered around our constitution is however a step in the right direction. If they can continue down this path, then they can count on my support.

  • Posted by: Brad - Feb. 06, 2012 11:58 AM ET USA

    Well it has come to this. The liberals have finally exposed themselves so overtly that even many of the Catholics that have supported them are shocked. I noticed in my state there was Catholics but no leadership when they "legalized" same-sex marriage. Then, as now - I'm not sure what we are waiting for - they are moving to destroy the Church - sin is outweighing the beauty of truth - we must oppose with all vigor or see the Church have to go underground in the nation that defined liberty.

  • Posted by: Albert102 - Feb. 05, 2012 11:02 AM ET USA

    Some have noted that one in six hospitals is Catholic and that there would be a shortage of health services if Catholic hospitals close. Unfortunately, the secularists in the U.S. would be overjoyed if Catholic hospitals close. There would be years of turmoil, but eventually non-Catholic hospitals would take up the slack (some by purchasing the closed hospitals and hiring the laid-off employees). Pro-choicers would be happy, as all or most hospitals would then do abortions, sterilizations, etc.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Feb. 04, 2012 10:10 PM ET USA

    I think everyone is missing a big point. The new legislation is not aimed at the bishops so much as at all catholic institutions: such as catholic schools, catholic hospitals, catholic adoption agencies, catholic charities and so on.These institutions are all stretched for dollars. The new law is deliberately aimed to them out of business. The present anti-catholic administration has calculated that Catholics will not fight. We are a wimpy bunch,they may very well be right: but I hope not.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 04, 2012 2:30 PM ET USA

    "Truth" was never a Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or even Atheist "thing..." Truth is simply what is real, either imminently or ultimately. When the Magesterium puts its seal on any given "truth" the debating should be over, at least for practicing Catholics. The Magesterium really does us a favor as Catholics, for NO ONE escapes the "Truth..." They may temporarily avoid it, but every man will be either exalted or bound by it in eternity.

  • Posted by: jcl - Feb. 04, 2012 12:12 AM ET USA

    If the Bishops want traction on this issue they MUST very publically denounce Catholic politicians BY NAME (even excommunication) for bringing scandal to Church teaching through their voting power.

  • Posted by: Ken - Feb. 03, 2012 9:55 PM ET USA

    Our Bishops are about 50 years too late on this, as well as a host of other issues. They formed their pact with the devil on too many other issues in the past, many by simply remaining silent, to step forward now and expect a groundswell of support. Their cause may finally be righteous, but they have allowed too many in the church to be lulled into a false sense of security. THAT more than any other reason is why we find ourselves at this point - the point of a government sword.

  • Posted by: Defender - Feb. 03, 2012 7:32 PM ET USA

    I really don't think it is a sleeping conscience so much as it appears the bishops are selective (and, to be skeptical, there is a lot of money involved) in what they want the to laity to get upset about. What of the errant Catholic politicians that they do nothing about? What of the Catholic schools in need of support? What of same sex marriages? (And of Starbucks supporting the same?) What of leadership?

  • Posted by: claire5327 - Feb. 03, 2012 6:52 PM ET USA

    "He who is not with me is against me." When we are not Standing up for our Faith we are against our Faith. This situation we are now seeing is the result of "Sins of Omission" committed collectively by us the Catholics from some of our leaders to some of the laity. "Be thou hot or cold, thou art lukewarm I will vomit thee out from my mouth!" "My right hand gives you My mercy, My left hand gives you My Justice; you choose!" May our Names be in the Book Of Life; choose His Mercy NOW; repent!

  • Posted by: davidSanDiego - Feb. 03, 2012 6:44 PM ET USA

    Let's assume that a Catholic bookstore is the only bookstore in town. Since pornography is available at bookstores in other towns, the government steps in and decides that the Catholic bookstore must sell pornography also since it's open to the general public. Not a perfect analogy, I admit, but uncomfortably close.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 03, 2012 4:08 PM ET USA

    It's one thing to be a contracepting Catholic, it is another to have the government tell your church what to do. The first is an uninformed conscience, the latter is a lose of liberty. If the government can control what the Church must cover in insurance, it will also take over what can be preached from the ambo.