Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, won't be spending so much time in the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the nation's largest religious body. Archbishop Kurtz of Louisville, KY is now in the top spot. But one thing hasn't changed: the bishops are still fired up about the HHS mandate. 

On Nov. 13, as the bishops wound up their annual meeting in Baltimore this week, they released a "special  message" on the HHS mandate. The statement linked the bishops' continued resistance to the federal law to Pope Franicis' call for a deepened commitment to serve the needy and those damaged by sin and spiritual alienation.

 Some commentators have suggested that the pope is asking the bishops to walk away from contenous battles over religious freedom concerns. But today's statement argues that the HHS mandate actually prevents the church's pastors from performing such services in harmony with Catholic teaching.

Pope Francis has reminded us that “In the context of society, there is only one thing which the Church quite clearly demands: the freedom to proclaim the Gospel in its entirety, even when it runs counter to the world, even when it goes against the tide.” 

We stand together as pastors charged with proclaiming the Gospel in its entirety. That Gospel calls us to feed the poor, heal the sick, and educate the young, and in so doing witness to our faith in its fullness. Our great ministries of service and our clergy, religious sisters and brothers, and lay faithful, especially those involved in Church apostolates, strive to answer this call every day, and the Constitution and the law protect our freedom to do so.

Yet with its coercive HHS mandate, the government is refusing to uphold its obligation to respect the rights of religious believers. Beginning in March 2012, in United for Religious Freedom, we identified three basic problems with the HHS mandate: it establishes a false architecture of religious liberty that excludes our ministries and so reduces freedom of religion to freedom of worship; it compels our ministries to participate in providing employees with abortifacient drugs and devices, sterilization, and contraception, which violates our deeply-held beliefs; and it compels our faithful people in business to act against our teachings, failing to provide them any exemption at all.

Despite our repeated efforts to work and dialogue toward a solution, those problems remain. Not only does the mandate undermine our ministries’ ability to witness to our faith, which is their core mission, but the penalties it imposes also lay a great burden on those ministries, threatening their very ability to survive and to serve the many who rely on their care.


So now what?  January 2014 is the Obama administration's official deadline for compliance with the HHS mandate by Catholic non-profits -- though church-affailiated institutions actually have individual deadlines based on the date their healthcare plan is updated. Some grandfathered plans will allow Catholic non-profits to stretch things out further, but not indefinitely.

Today's statement merely reaffirms the bishops' continued to comitment to "resist" the federal law.

As the government’s implementation of the mandate against us approaches, we bishops stand united in our resolve to resist this heavy burden and protect our religious freedom. Even as each bishop struggles to address the mandate, together we are striving to develop alternate avenues of response to this difficult situation.

During the USCCB meeting in Baltimore, I asked several bishops to outline their plans, and most were not prepared to do so. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was among those who reported that deliberations were on-going. But he framed the bishops' primary concerns in stark terms.

Two things are at stake: We don’t do anything that contradicts our basic moral beliefs and we don’t do anything that would scandalize our people.

If we tell our people: be faithful and not cave in, it’s important that we do the same.

I asked him if various dioceses might be grappling with specific challenges, and he said

There are differences from diocese to diocese in the way that our charitable arms are set up -- how they are legally constituted. Some bishops could decide to give employees money to buy their own insurance. It is way too early to point to what might happen.


Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston commented on the moral challenges posed by the mandate in a Boston Gobe interview published this week. The Globe reported that 

A few bishops have suggested shutting down non-exempt Catholic organizations, but O’Malley — who ended Catholic adoption services in Boston rather than comply with a state law requiring the church to arrange adoptions for gay parents as well as heterosexual ones — said that “closing the institutions down is also an evil for us.”

And yet, he said, there is a danger in allowing any erosion of religious liberty.

So where does this leave the U.S. bishops? It's clear that today's message will  not be the last USCCB statement on the mandate, with just six weeks to go before the dealine.