The HHS Mandate: What Now, In Light of the Supreme Court Ruling?

In this third and final part of my series I will: (1) comment on the relation between the Supreme Court ruling and the HHS Mandate; (2) outline a set of reasons given by Cardinal Dolan for which the Bishops are reticent to speak on contraception, and offer a comment to each; and (3) offer some practical suggestions, many of which are already being done by Bishops, priests and lay people around the country. I will load up that part of the article with hyperlinks so that others can follow their lead. 

The Supreme Court Ruling                                       

In light of the June 28 ruling by the United States Supreme Court upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), it must be clearly stated that the term “Mandate” is being used to describe two distinct, yet related, legal entities:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

(1) The Mandate that all Americans must purchase health insurance or else be fined/taxed. This is the Mandate upheld by the SCOTUS, and it has been part of Obamacare from the beginning. It is known as the linchpin of the law, because financially the law cannot survive without it.

(2) The Mandate of Secretary Sebelius that all health insurance policies include free coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing pills. This second Mandate was not part of the original law, it was added as a later Rule. This is the Mandate about which the Bishops are concerned, and because of which they initiated the Fortnight for Freedom.

Some are arguing that the lawsuits by Catholic entities against the Executive Branch with respect to Mandate #2 will be unaffected by the SCOTUS’ upholding of Mandate #1. But the National Catholic Bioethics Center argues that “the Health and Human Services mandate [Mandate #2] has come to be woven into the fabric of the ACA as a post-provision,” and this suggests that the lawsuits are seriously undermined by the upholding of the entire health care law.

Therefore, there is now even more reason for the Church, (Bishops, priests and laity), to speak the truth concerning the specific content of Mandate #2. Democracy functions by means of the grass roots, and the grass roots acts only on conviction.

It’s the other side that is in a position to dictate the law at the moment; all we can do is bear witness to the truth, and we are not doing that by excluding discussion of contraception and more broadly “reproductive rights”. It may seem a long shot to shut down the contraceptive industry by convincing people to freely stop purchasing them out of a deep understanding of the goodness of the truth about conjugal relations, but that is what the Church is called to do.

Cardinal Dolan on the Reasons for Silence

In the Wall Street Journal interview mentioned in part 1 of this article, Cardinal Dolan admitted quite candidly to three reasons why the Bishops are silent on questions of contraception and Church teachings human sexuality: (1) the enormity of the catechetical challenge; (2) the priest scandal; and (3) the aftermath of Humanae vitae. 

A Towering Catechetical Challenge

Here is the first quotation of Cardinal Dolan,

I’m not afraid to admit that we have an internal catechetical challenge—a towering one—in convincing our own people of the moral beauty and coherence of what we teach. That’s a biggie…We have gotten gun-shy…in speaking with any amount of cogency on chastity and sexual morality.

The towering challenge is a lack of catechesis on these matters among the faithful. However, as will be discussed, people nowadays do have a sense that something is amiss. Many do not have an intellectual understanding concerning why, but their own experience of contraception and related issues has left them experientially aware that it is not the be-all and end-all they had thought. Maybe they’re clinging to it because they don’t think there’s an alternative, perhaps they’re afraid of change, or perhaps the wounds and possible guilt that emerges seem too difficult. I can understand the profundity of the pastoral problem, but God is infinite, He desires nothing more than to forgive us, and can make all things new.

Cardinal Dolan seems to me to imply that this lack of catechesis constitutes a reason for which Church spokespersons, when asked about that teaching, keep saying that this is not about contraception. But, I don’t see when the opportune moment might be, other than now. There was just such a towering catechetical challenge in 1968, and in paragraph 30 of Humanae vitae, speaking to world’s Bishops, Pope Paul VI said,

We invite all of you, We implore you, to give a lead to your priests…and to the faithful of your dioceses, and to devote yourselves with all zeal and without delay to safeguarding the holiness of marriage…Consider this mission as one of your most urgent responsibilities at the present time. As you well know, it calls for concerted pastoral action in every field of human diligence: economic, cultural and social.

The urgency of that summons was due to the ripeness of the teaching moment. This moment right now is a reincarnation of 1968 in the sense that in both cases the whole world had/has its ears perked up concerning Catholicism and contraception. The first time there was deafening silence from the pulpit, and in two ways I think that was understandable: I don’t think they knew what to say and I don’t think people wanted to hear it. Things are very different now. Now we know more, now we can explain the teaching. It’s like that old saying, “if I only knew back then, what I know now.” Well, it’s back then, right now. How often in life are you given a second chance like this? And secondly, now people are thirsting for this teaching. Consider this heartening account of a priest who recently gave a homily on contraception and after a few moments of pregnant silence the congregation erupted in applause.

A Connection to the Priest Sex Abuse Scandal

The second reason given in the interview by Cardinal Dolan for the current silence of the Bishops is the priest abuse scandal, which he says has,

intensified our laryngitis over speaking about issues of chastity and sexual morality, because we almost thought, “I’ll blush if I do. . . . After what some priests and some bishops, albeit a tiny minority, have done, how will I have any credibility in speaking on that?”

To this I would respectfully submit that for those Bishops and other Church spokespersons who are not among the tiny minority of those who have committed these crimes, this scandal does not constitute a reason to remain silent on these matters; quite to the contrary.

In addition, the saints of old sought out humiliations as a source of holiness. Maybe some humiliations will come if the Bishops begin to teach on these matters, but one must be careful not to let the fear of such humiliations function as an excuse to avoid speaking the truth “in season and out of season.”

The Aftermath of Humanae vitae

In his interview, Cardinal Dolan, with great candor, also granted a third reason for the silence of the Bishops, when he says that Humanae vitae,

brought such a tsunami of dissent, departure, disapproval of the church, that I think most of us—and I’m using the first-person plural intentionally, including myself—kind of subconsciously said, “Whoa. We’d better never talk about that, because it’s just too hot to handle.” We forfeited the chance to be a coherent moral voice when it comes to one of the more burning issues of the day.

The Cardinal casts this reason in the past tense, and as mentioned above, there may have been some understandable reasons 40 years ago for a reticence to speak. Now, though, there are many reasons to speak with confidence. Pope John Paul II thematized his Papacy with the words “Do not be afraid,” and now is the time to apply those words to this topic.

Some Practical Suggestions

Consider this argument of the Administration when presenting its “accommodation”:

[I]f a woman’s employer is a charity or a hospital that has a religious objection to providing contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company — not the hospital, not the charity — will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge, without co-pays and without hassles.

This carefully-crafted statement contains the meaning that the religious objection represents the opposite of “reaching out” and “offering care” and is therefore immoral. It also clearly suggests a lack of charity in the religious objection by mentioning “hassles,” which are irrational, as well as the rejection of free “contraceptive care.”

Statements like that should not be left unchallenged. This is because according to Catholic social teaching, the State does have a role to regulate society (See the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (CSDC) pars. 351 – 55 and 393 – 98). To take an extreme example, if there were a religion carrying out human sacrifices, the State is in its rightful role both to stop that and to legislate against it. And so, rather than allowing the false premises in the above statement to sink into the minds of those who hear it, those premises must be exposed, debunked and replaced with the truth – otherwise the public will think that the State is playing its proper role of regulation with the HHS Mandate.

The three false premises are: (1) that contraception is health care; (2) that contraception is good for society; and (3) that to oppose contraception is immoral. The Church (Bishops, priests and laity) should proclaim with confidence and joy the many dimensions of the good news of Church teaching on love and procreation: the blessings of children; responsible parenthood and NFP; the Catholic view of the goodness of the body; the benefits of waiting until marriage, and we should point out the many risks contraception poses to relationships, health, the common good and respect for women. Also, there is an underreported epidemic of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), particularly among young girls, against which the pill does nothing.

Something very heartening is that priests and lay people have started speaking on all of these topics, and precisely because of this very debate. One of my favorites is a talk by Gloria Purvis at the Catholic Information Center on February 27. I also noticed two recent homilies online, one by Philadelphia priest Fr. Philip Forlano given March 4th at St. Stanislaus in Lansdale, and the other by Fr. Ben Cameron of the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mercy in Auburn, Kentucky, both of which combined boldness, clarity and compassion.

And there is much more:

  • Here is a moving personal testimony by a layman.
  • Here is a unique website which explains many of the facts in a catchy way, with depth.
  • Here is a video (start at 6:35 for English) of my own modest attempt at explaining this teaching from the perspective of personalism and Theology of the Body.
  • There is the important, widely used and easily accessible work of Dr. Janet E. Smith.
  • Here is a clear quick-read version of the New Natural Law approach by Dr. Christopher Tollefsen.
  • The Vindication of Humanae Vitae in First Things back in 2008 by Mary Eberstadt is a gripping article constituting a sort of definitive proof that Pope Paul VI was right on every count.
  • From the medical point of view, there is the work of the Pope Paul VI Institute.
  • I recommend this book by Dietrich von Hildebrand.
  • And I highly recommend that Bishops follow the lead of Cardinal Dolan and invite Generation Life to their Dioceses.

Pope Paul VI was right when he said, “We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason” (Humanae vitae, 12). Now is the time to explain that harmony. A source of hope in this regard is that many people of today, particularly Catholics in the pews, want to hear this teaching. In the Wall Street Journal interview Cardinal Dolan said that he “Sees a hunger, especially among young adults, for a more authoritative church voice on sexuality.”

He is right about this. Invariably, when I give a talk about Blessed John Paul II’s Theology of the Body I am asked: “How come we never hear this from the pulpit?” That question is not so much a critique as a yearning: people want explanations and they listen intently. Talks by lay people on these matters are helpful, but frankly, they don’t hold a candle to preaching from the pulpit. The best would be if we had both, working together.

In order for a specific truth to have a positive impact on the culture, there has to be a critical mass of people who grasp that truth deeply, and live it because of that grasping. That critical mass does not exist on this teaching, and it needs to be fostered.

Pope Paul VI also made positive predictions in Humanae vitae, “If simultaneous progress is made in these various fields, then the intimate life of parents and children in the family will be rendered not only more tolerable, but easier and more joyful. And life together in human society will be enriched with fraternal charity and made more stable with true peace when God’s design which He conceived for the world is faithfully followed.” 


The purpose of this series was to go through the approaches of the various Bishops to the HHS Mandate, to express gratitude and admiration for all of those achievements, and then to point out one important dimension of this complex issue that needs more direct attention. Studying the hyperlinks above will provide the means to build a case for speaking truth to power, which can be proclaimed with courage and joy.

Part I: The HHS Mandate: A Question of Religious Freedom or the Life Issues?
Part II: The HHS Mandate: This is About Contraception


  • Peter J. Colosi

    Dr. Peter J. Colosi is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...