SEOUL — Military priests have joined the Roman Catholic Church’s fight against a new government mandate requiring employers to offer health coverage that includes contraception and sterilization.
During religious services this past weekend at most military bases, clergymen spoke out against the new directive, which is being called a “severe assault on religious liberty,” according to a letter from the Archdiocese for the Military Services. In some cases, the letter was passed out to the congregation during Sunday Mass. At other bases, the letter was read to the churchgoers from the pulpit. Similar letters were disseminated at Catholic churches across the United States.
In the Jan. 26 letter, which was emailed to all Catholic chaplains, Archbishop Timothy Broglio issued a scathing critique of the new health care requirements announced last month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Under the new directive, most employers must provide health insurance coverage that includes “all FDA-approved forms of contraception.”
Broglio wrote that the new mandate will require Catholic employers, such as schools and hospitals, to provide “immoral services” including sterilization, contraception and what some consider “abortion-inducing” drugs such as the morning-after pill. Most people, he wrote, will be “forced” to buy the coverage.
“In so ruling, the Administration has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our Nation’s first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty,” Broglio stated.
But what happened after Broglio’s letter was disseminated is unclear.
According to the Archdiocese, the Army’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains asked senior chaplains in an email not to read the letter from the pulpit — only that it be mentioned in Mass announcements and distributed in print form at the backs of chapels.
The Archdiocese maintains that Broglio and Secretary of the Army John McHugh later discussed the matter and “agreed that it was mistake to stop the reading of the Archbishop’s letter.”
Both sides agree that one line, “We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law,” was removed from the letter over concerns that it could be misunderstood as a call to civil disobedience, though the Archdiocese and McHugh’s spokeswoman Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb disagree on who offered to remove it.
McHugh’s office disputes the Archdiocese’ version of events, saying that neither the secretary nor the Army banned chaplains from reading the letter during Mass.
“That is simply not the case,” Edgecomb said in an email to Stars and Stripes, adding that “any suggestion that [the Chief of Chaplains] or the Army were attempting to censor the clergy is not supported by the facts.”
On Jan. 30, McHugh met with senior advisers and determined that the issuance of the letter during a religious service “was not a matter for Army review,” Edgecomb said. “We consider the matter closed.”
The Archdiocese oversees military chaplains who, according to its website, reach more than 1.5 million people. It was unknown how many chaplains worldwide have read the letters to their congregations.
The new directive would not change the services already provided by military clinics and hospitals, including birth control. Emergency contraception was mandated to be offered at military bases in February 2010.
A number of Catholic and evangelical groups have criticized the health care plan, including Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council Action, who called the act “an anti-religious, anti-conscience and anti-life mandate that must be reversed."
However, White House spokesman Jay Carney said during a briefing Tuesday that “the administration believes that this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious beliefs and increasing access to important preventive services.” But he also hinted the White House may be open to a compromise solution.
The issue has attracted attention far beyond the military or the Catholic clergy, becoming a political hot potato in an increasingly heated Republican presidential campaign.
Candidate Mitt Romney in particular attacked the Obama administration this week for the health care plan, calling it a “violation of conscience” that attacks “America’s first right, our right to worship God,” according to Reuters.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, nonprofit employers who do not currently provide contraceptive coverage because of their religious beliefs will have an extra year to implement the new rule, which goes into effect for other employers on Aug. 1, 2012.