During the U.S. bishops’ ad limina visit with Pope Benedict XVI in late 2011, the Holy Father publicly referred to an ominous turn of events in the Land of the Free: “Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.”

The Holy See’s intelligence was timely and accurate: On Jan. 20, Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, approved a federal rule that required virtually all private employers to provide sterilization and contraception services — including abortifacient drugs. Thus, by August 2013, diocesan Catholic Charities or The Catholic University of America, among other church-affiliated institutions, must certify that their employee health benefits include, for example, the abortion-inducing drug “ella.”

The federal government’s action poses several immediate challenges to our Catholic leaders. They must unify the faithful and other Americans of good will to oppose this unprecedented threat to the free exercise of religion. And they must work with their allies on Capitol Hill and in the academy to develop a strong legislative and legal response.

The irony is that the campaign to unite Catholics could face more hurdles than the execution of a winning strategy in the courts. The divisions are on display in the handiwork of Sebelius, who continues to present herself as a “Catholic” — though her archbishop in Kansas City, Kan., has challenged her stance. The divisions also are on display in the burst of angry rhetoric from self-identified “liberal Catholics,” who were among the president’s champions during the 2008 election battle. Now, they describe the government’s action as a “betrayal.” Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote that the president “botched the birth-control controversy.”

Though Dionne is no fan of Humanae Vitae, “as an American liberal who believes that religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think Church leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings. The administration should have done more to balance the competing liberty interests here.”

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the rights of “conscience” were said to trump moral teaching that barred contraception, abortion and non-marital sexual relationships. Now, the raw power of the state has been used to violate the conscience rights of believers in an open and unapologetic manner.

It must be hoped that the extraordinary nature of the government’s action will lead Catholics in the administration and beyond to finally make a decisive choice between inconvenient moral truths and the self-justifying political expediency that has secured their political advancement and access to power.