WASHINGTON (CNS) – In a Sept. 17 letter to U.S. bishops, New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continues to study the legal and moral implications of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
The USCCB also continues to "develop avenues of response that would both preserve our strong unity and protect our consciences," he said.
The letter from Cardinal Dolan, president of the USCCB, was a follow-up from the bishops' Sept. 10-11 Administrative Committee meeting where they discussed the HHS mandate, among other topics.
The HHS contraceptive mandate, part of the Affordable Care Act, will require most employers, including religious employers, to provide coverage of contraceptives, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs free of charge, even if the employer is morally opposed to such services. It includes an exemption for some religious employers that fit its criteria.
The bishops' "efforts are proceeding apace, and, as you know, include a careful legal and moral analysis of the final rule," Cardinal Dolan wrote. He said further discussion will take place at the bishops' fall general meeting Nov. 11-14 in Baltimore.
"We are united in our resolve to continue to defend our right to live by our faith, and our duty to serve the poor, heal the sick, keep our apostolates strong and faithful, and insure our people," he wrote.
In the final HHS rule on the mandate, an accommodation of religious ministries that do not fit the exemption, contraceptive coverage for those accommodated religious organizations with health insurance plans is to be provided separately through health insurance companies or third-party administrators who must ensure that payments for contraceptive services come from outside the objecting organization's premiums.
For self-insuring institutions, a third-party administrator would provide or arrange the services, paid for through reductions in federally facilitated-exchange user fees associated with their health insurance provider.
The mandate does not include a conscience clause for employers who object to such coverage on moral grounds.
The contraceptive mandate was initially slated to go into effect Aug. 1, but the HHS final rule issued this summer moved the date of implementation to Jan. 1. Starting Oct. 1, people can begin selecting and apply for health insurance coverage choices.
In his letter to the bishops, Cardinal Dolan emphasized that the USCCB Administrative Committee was unanimous in its resolve to continue its struggle with the HHS mandate and he likewise voiced concern regarding the Catholic Health Association's "hurried acceptance of the accommodation" which he called "untimely and unhelpful."
"We highly value CHA's great expertise in their ministry of healing," Cardinal Dolan said, "but as they have been the first to say, they do not represent the magisterium of the church."
He said the final rule issued June 28 has "the same three basic problems" found in the original rule issued in February: a narrow definition of "religious employer" that "reduces religious freedom to the freedom of worship by dividing our community between houses of worship and ministries of service"; second-class treatment of such ministries through a "so-called 'accommodation'"; and a "failure to offer any relief to for-profit businesses run by so many of our faithful in the pews."
He stressed that the Catholic Church has long been a leader in providing affordable health care. "The bishops on a national level have been at it for almost 100 years, and our heroic women and men religious have done so even longer."
But now, he pointed out, "instead of spending our time, energy, and treasure on increasing access to health care, as we have done for many decades, we're now forced to spend those resources on determining how to respond to recently enacted government regulations that restrict and burden our religious freedom."
Cardinal Dolan said that "while much remains uncertain," the USCCB is continuing its efforts in Congress and in the courts particularly since the mandate "lessens the ability of our ministries to give full-throated witness to our faith, a central mission of all Catholic apostolates."
"As I've said before, this is a fight that we didn't ask for, and would rather not be in, but it's certainly one that we won't run from," the cardinal wrote.