By Benjamin Mann
Catholics may have to suffer for the integrity of their institutions, Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska announced in his response to the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.
“We cannot and will not comply with this unjust decree. Like the martyrs of old, we must be prepared to accept suffering which could include heavy fines and imprisonment,” Bishop Bruskewitz wrote in a letter he ordered to be read at every Sunday Mass in his diocese on Jan. 29.
“Our American religious liberty is in grave jeopardy,” he warned, describing the impact of new rules that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has instituted as part of federal health care reform.
Those rules, confirmed as final on Jan. 20, will require most religious employers to cover contraception and sterilization, including some abortion-causing drugs, in new health care plans. Sebelius has given religious groups an extra year to comply, but rejected calls for a broader exemption clause.
“This means that all of our Catholic schools, hospitals, social service agencies, and the like will be forced to participate in evil,” Bishop Bruskewitz explained.
The bishop recalled that the Church “has pleaded with President Obama to rescind this edict, but all pleas have been met with scorn and have fallen on deaf ears.”
He described Secretary Sebelius as a “bitter fallen-away Catholic,” and called her one-year deadline extension for non-exempt religious employers “an act of mockery” – because, he noted, “during that year, they must ‘refer’ people to the insurance that covers wicked deeds.”
A proposed U.S. Senate bill, the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act,” would amend the health care law to let employers opt out of covering some services. Bishop Bruskewitz urged Catholics to call their elected representatives in support of the bill, and to protest the “outrage” of the contraception mandate.
Meanwhile, he said, the faithful should “pray and do penance that this matter may be resolved.”
The bishop of Lincoln was one of a large number of U.S. Church leaders voicing alarm over the weekend, in letters distributed to parishes and read at Mass regarding the Health and Human Services order.
In the Diocese of Phoenix, Catholics heard a message from Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, who declared that people of faith would not be “made second-class citizens” and “stripped of their God-given rights.”
In Marquette, Michigan, Bishop Alexander K. Sample said that if the rule takes effect, “we Catholics will be compelled to either violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees and suffer the penalties for doing so.”
New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond stressed the need for action in his letter to the faithful over the weekend, as he decried the “unprecedented attack on religious liberty” by which the state was “violating our rights to make choices based on our morals and Church teaching.”
Archbishop Aymond is in Rome for meetings with Vatican officials as well as Pope Benedict XVI, who issued his own warning to the U.S. Church just before Health and Human Services finalized the mandate.
In remarks to bishops of the Mid-Atlantic states on Jan. 19, the Pope said all U.S. Catholics must “realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres.”