Pope Benedict XVI cut to the chase when meeting with the visiting bishops from Washington, D.C., Baltimore and the U.S. Armed Services. The pope mentioned "religious freedom" in the third sentence of his Jan. 19 remarks at the Vatican and he never let up -- returning to this hot topic again and again.
The bottom line, he said, is that America's once strong political consensus has "eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such."
It doesn't matter if these attacks originate in "radical secularism," "radical individualism," a "merely scientific rationality" or suppressive forms of "majority rule," said Benedict, during one in an ongoing series of meetings with American bishops. Catholic leaders must strive to defend church teachings in ways that reach all believers in their care -- including Catholic politicians.
Within a matter of hours, these American bishops had good cause to reflect on one Benedict passage in particular.
While he didn't name names of cite issues, the pope noted that of particular Vatican concern are "attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. 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 next day, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius -- a liberal Catholic -- announced that the Obama administration would not back down on its new rules requiring the majority of church-based institutions to include all FDA-approved forms of contraception in the health-insurance plans they offer to employees and even students. This would include, with no out-of-pocket payments, sterilizations and the contraceptives -- abortifacient drugs -- commonly known as "morning-after pills."
"Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, it is documented to significantly reduce health costs and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women," announced Sebelius. The administration's decision was made "after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty."
In a concession that further infuriated her critics, she said some religious institutions could apply for a one-year delay in complying with the rules.
The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was not amused.
"In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, in an online video. "To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable. It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom."
Pro-Vatican Catholics were united in their opposition to the new regulations, which also drew fire from conservative Protestants and Jews. At the same time, the struggle provided fresh evidence of painful divisions among American Catholics, including the reluctance or refusal of many Catholic institutions to defend church teachings. For example, a mere 18 Catholic colleges -- out of nearly 250 nationwide -- united for an earlier protest of the proposed HHS regulations.
"Some Catholics will hear this news with mixed or negative emotions, including many bishops," noted Dr. Patrick Whelan, of the Catholic Democrats organization. "At the same time, we know Catholic women, and by extension their families, use oral contraception at the same rate as the overall population. For over half a century, since the issuance of Humanae Vitae, Catholics and Catholic theologians have taken issue with the Church's teaching on birth control."
Meanwhile, a cardinal long admired by progressive Catholics added his voice to the chorus of those who were outraged.
"I cannot imagine that this decision was released without the explicit knowledge and approval of President Barack Obama," said retired Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, on his weblog. "I cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience than this ruling. ... For me the answer is clear: we stand with our moral principles and heritage over the centuries, not what a particular Federal government agency determines."