Would the HHS mandate have forced Mother Teresa to fund contraception and sterilization?

That’s not just a random question that Donald Cardinal Wuerl raises. Most know of Mother Teresa’s work in the poorest of neighborhoods in Calcutta, but she and her order founded and ran hospice centers in other parts of the world — including an AIDS hospice in Washington DC.  The ridiculous nature of the HHS mandate would indeed have treated Mother Teresa’s hospice as unqualified as a religious exemption, and the beatified nun would have had to supply free contraceptives and sterilization services to the employees of the hospice:

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., said in an open letter on Monday and in a videotaped message that the Obama administration would not have considered the work of Mother Teresa as “religious” and thus would not have exempted her charitable organizations from a new federal regulation, issued under Obamacare, that will force Catholics to act against their faith.

“Under the mandate, even the work of Mother Teresa wouldn’t be qualified as religious,” said Cardinal Wuerl in the video.

“Contrary to America’s great tradition of religious freedom, embodied in the First Amendment, Catholic institutions will now be forced to act against their conscience and provide coverage for drugs and procedures they believe are morally wrong, simply because they serve people of all faiths or no faith equally,” said Cardinal Wuerl.

Mother Teresa founded a hospice in Washington, D.C., where members of her order, the Missionaries of Charity, care for people with advanced AIDS.

The administration’s new regulation includes a “religious” exemption, but that exemption is narrowly drawn and does not extend to Catholic lay persons or to Catholic hospitals, schools or charities.

For those who attend Catholic Mass, expect this and similar arguments in homilies and parish bulletins from now until the point when the mandate is changed or ObamaCare overturned.  The Obama administration calculated that the leadership of the Catholic Church in the US would bend on this matter, but yesterday’s coordinated legal efforts in the courts means that the bishops plan on a very public battle — and will define it as a fight for religious liberty.  In my column for The Week, this puts the Obama administration in the entirely untenable position of having to rescue the Catholic vote by claiming to be more Catholic than the Pope:

Catholics, unlike their evangelical Christian brothers and sisters, are normally not a monolithic voting bloc. Catholics accounted for 29 percent of the vote in 2008, according to CNN’s exit polls, and Obama won a nine-point victory in that bloc, 54 to 45. This demographic includes a significant number of Hispanic voters, a group Obama hoped to win by promising yet again to pursue immigration reform, having failed to deliver even a coherent proposal for it while Democrats held overwhelming majorities in Congress in 2009 and 2010.

Instead, parishioners attending church every week will hear constant updates on the lawsuits and their status. They will hear appeals from the bishops asking Catholics to pressure the White House into retreating on the mandate. Homilies from the pulpit are likely to echo arguments such as this from Cardinal Wuerl, noting that Mother Teresa’s charitable AIDS hospice in Washington, D.C., wouldn’t qualify as a religious organization in Obama’s mandate. How many priests will ask from the pulpit for their congregations to consider the absurdity of government regulations that would have forced Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity to provide free sterilizations and abortifacients? I would bet the number will be more than just a few.

Obama and his team could have avoided all of this simply by allowing the exemption to apply to all religious organizations and not just the churches themselves. Now, however, it’s probably too late; the damage to their relationship with the bishops has been done, and a retreat now would make Obama look considerably weaker. Instead, they will have to fight the bishops and the heretofore sympathetic Catholic organizations in court all the way past the general election, while trying to convince the parishioners that Obama is, to quote an old joke, more Catholic than the Pope.

The bishops will get a significant boost this summer from an unlikely source — the entertainment industry.  A new film about the Cristero War in Mexico during the 1920s will open on June 1st, and as Charles Homans writes for The New Republic, it promises to focus Catholics on this threat to religious liberty in the US now:

THE CONNECTION may not be immediately obvious to non-churchgoers. But, for anyone familiar with the air of aggrieved persecution that has permeated the Church, as well as right-leaning Protestant institutions, since President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued its ruling on contraception, the allegorical value of a Western-style epic about rugged God- and gun-loving individualists doing battle with an overreaching federal government is hard to miss. “Freedom is not just for writers and for politicians and for fancy documents!” Gorostieta, played by Andy Garcia, shouts to his men in the scene that Rice showed the Becket Fund crowd. “Freedom is our home, our wives, our children, our faith! Freedom is our lives—and we will defend it or die trying!” Watching the scene at a recent press screening of the movie, I half-expected to see the Cristeros ride off to battle in sweater vests.

After speaking about the administration’s contraception ruling at a mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington in April, Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl urged parishioners to go see For Greater Glory. Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez has praised the film’s “message of the importance of religious freedom [that] has particular resonance for us today.” Organizers of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast invited the film’s producer to Washington in April and screened For Greater Glory for an audience of Catholic thought-leaders. “I don’t think the Catholic bishops are going to let the opportunity pass,” Ed Morrissey, senior editor at the popular conservative blog Hot Air and an early champion of the film, told me. “I think they’re looking at this as a great springboard for discussing the HHS mandate.”

The Obama administration has invited a near-perfect storm of opposition among Catholics after winning their vote handily in 2008.  Either they must have thought that they don’t need that edge to win in 2012 even though Catholics made up 29% of the vote in 2008, or that the bishops would cave.  Both look like very bad miscalculations, and For Greater Glory might just have the cavalry riding to inspire Catholics to oppose Obama in November.

Update: This poll is a month old, but it’s directly on point.  Pew’s April survey showed an eight-point drop in support for Obama among Catholics, from 53/44 in March (roughly the same advantage as in 2008) to 45/50 — a change in the gap of 14 points.  That may have had to do with Rick Santorum’s withdrawal from the race, which took place in the survey period, but may also be a reaction to the fight between Obama and the Catholic Church.  I’ll be watching for Pew’s results in May.

Update II: The biggest religious lawsuit in US history … and the television networks largely ignored it:

The evening news broadcasts all but spiked the largest legal action in history to defend our Constitutionally-protected religious freedom. The May 21 editions of ABC’s World News and NBC’s Nightly News refused to report the fact that 43 Catholic dioceses and organizations filed a lawsuit on Monday against the Obama administration. CBS Evening News gave this historic news a mere 19 seconds of air time.

This is the worst bias by omission I have seen in the quarter century history of the Media Research Center. Every American knows about the Chinese communists withholding for 20 years the news that the US had landed on the moon, because it reflected poorly on the government. Our US media today are no different. They are now withholding news from the American people if it is harmful to the re-election of Barack Obama.

That’s OK.  Catholics will find out very quickly through their parishes and dioceses.

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