The HHS Mandate: Is it a Religious Liberty Issue?

Some Catholics (and others) have couched their objection to the recent HHS mandate in terms of religious liberty. Their focus has been on the unreasonably narrow definition of what constitutes a religious organization, and on the lack of a proper exemption for religious employers who do not wish to provide coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortions. Such a focus is good and correct—the HHS mandate does blatantly infringe on the free exercise of religion. To focus only on this aspect of the mandate, however, is to miss an even more foundational point, namely, that contraception, sterilization, and abortion are really evil.

We are speaking, then, of two distinct but related problems with the HHS mandate. First, it seeks to increase the frequency of contraceptive acts, sterilizations, and abortions. Second, it seeks to coerce most employers to cooperate materially in providing for, and facilitating, such acts even if these employers have a conscientious or religious objection. While we have objected, and must continue to object strongly, to the second point (the infringement on freedom of conscience and religion), we must also vocally oppose the first point. Indeed, the second presupposes the first. The more fundamental problem with the HHS mandate, therefore, is the immorality of the acts themselves in which religious organizations are being “required” to cooperate.

When it comes to any policy that directly seeks to facilitate contraceptive acts and abortions, we cannot limit ourselves to an approach that would imply that such a policy is acceptable as long as it isn’t forced on Catholics (or other religious employers). Contraception, sterilization, and abortion are always wrong for everybody, regardless of their religious beliefs. We should be seeking to eradicate these evils altogether, not merely seeking an exemption from cooperating in them ourselves.

If we approach the HHS mandate only with a concern for the protection of conscience rights, and do not accompany this approach with a clear reiteration and explanation of the immorality of contraception, sterilization, and abortion, then the rest of the world could easily understand us to be embracing not only a de facto, but even a de iure, pluralism with regard to these moral issues. People might take us to be saying, in effect: “We’re not trying to limit access to contraception and abortion; we just don’t want Catholic institutions to be forced to provide it.” This would be misleading, for the Catholic position is not that Catholics should not contracept or abort; it is that no one should contracept or abort.

“Fair enough,” one might say, “but as a matter of fact, only Catholics (and a few others) really believe that contraception, sterilization, and abortion are always wrong. How is it right to limit access to these things for the majority of people who think they are good or even necessary?” If our approach were limited to focusing only on our own religious liberty, then we would have to concede that, yes, we should see no problem in allowing other institutions to facilitate access to such things. If we are only seeking respect for our own subjective beliefs, then we should also respect the subjective beliefs of others. What we are truly doing in combating the HHS mandate, however, is primarily seeking respect for the objective law of God and, secondarily, seeking respect for the freedom to follow that law.

The law of God, of which we are now speaking, is the natural law. This means that even without faith, people can and should recognize contraception, sterilization, and abortion to be intrinsically evil. It is true that the immorality of these acts is also contained in Christian revelation, and is more easily known with faith, but knowledge of the evil of contraception, sterilization, or abortion does not depend on Christian faith. Thus, coercing a Catholic university to provide for contraception is radically different from coercing a kosher deli to serve pork. The prohibition against eating pork belonged to the divine positive law given in the Old Testament, and so faith in the revelation of the Old Testament was required in order to recognize the validity of the prohibition. Recognizing the evil of contraception, sterilization, and abortion, however is evident purely from reflection on human nature, even apart from faith.

Given that many people, as a matter of fact, do not recognize the immorality of contraception, sterilization, and abortion, charity urges us to help them to form their consciences properly. If we love our neighbors, we must strive to promote their salvation and happiness. We cannot be satisfied to sit back, and watch our brothers and sisters of another religion, or of no religion, commit serious sins as long as we do not have to be part of it. No, we are our brother’s keeper, especially since faith makes it so much easier for us to develop a properly formed conscience.

Even if the HHS mandate included a broad exemption for religious employers, it would still require others to provide these immoral services. Individual business owners with properly formed consciences would not enjoy the exemption that a church or school might. No one should be coerced into providing for contraception, sterilization, or abortion. In fact, no one should be providing them at all. The most basic problem is not that the mandate seeks to coerce those who know better into breaking God’s law; it is that God’s law is being broken.

We are not wrong to object to the HHS mandate’s infringement on religious liberty. After all, this is a religious issue. More fundamentally, however, it is an issue of the natural law. If the increased availability of contraception, sterilization, and abortion by such a mandate is inevitable, then practically the best that we might be able to do right now is seek to limit these evils by obtaining proper exemptions. 1 Nevertheless, it should always be clear to the world that our own refusal to cooperate in these sins is due to the very fact that they really are sins, always and for everybody, and, also, that even if an exemption for religious employers is the best we can do right now, we will always strive to eliminate these evils altogether.

  1. Cf. John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, n. 73.
Fr. Dylan Schrader About Fr. Dylan Schrader

Fr. Dylan Schrader is a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, and a student of theology at Catholic University of America.


  1. Well said! It has been distressing to see well-meaning Catholics retreat from addressing the inherent moral issues at stake, even to the point of calling them “distractions”.

  2. Thank you, Father, for not being afraid to tell the truth.

  3. Avatar rosemary says:

    I wish more priests would speak out as you from the pulpit. We need to convince our own Catholics, before we can convince others. The evil one has done a great job to date of placing fear in their hearts; keeping them silent. Ave Maria.

  4. As a youngish (37) Orthodox Catholic, I am amazed how my elders (including many of our bishops) keep missing the real opportunity for evangelism presented by the Obama administration’s mandate. I hope the next generation of priests is seeing how this missed opportunity is giving comfort to the heterodox gnostics in our midsts who think it acceptable to take the pill and the Eucharist on the very same day. Last month, I had the immense pleasure of taking part in the protest Mass in Cleveland Ohio. That sermon has become famous in some Catholic quarters. While I was among the first on my feet in applause of Bishop Lennon’s sermon, I must confess it had a certain regrettable hollowness. I say this with sincere love and respect for His Excellency. But what we heard was not the Gospel, or homiletics about the Culture of Death’s effect on women, families, demographics, and especially children — who in “planned” families are growing up without brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, if they are even being born at all. Rather, the focus was on a brief reply to some nuns written by Thomas Jefferson… a unitarian, philosophe, naturalist, slave-owner, and pagan. The Church must stop appealing to reason alone, and begin appealing to God. I pray for our Bishops. I know they suffer many burdens in this secular world where the opponents of Christ gather about them. But it is time to speak truth… not just to the earthly powers, but to the confused parishoners who have never heard a sermon against contraception in their whole lives. Even we who were present for Bishop Lennon’s sermon still have not heard one word against contraception, but only about “religious freedom.” I wish we did hear ringing denouncements from our Bishops. The faithful who gathered in that Cathedral are not the Tea Party. In truth, we are the vessels of the Body of Christ. Let our words accord to this grave responsibility of ours.

  5. Avatar Doc Kimble says:

    The government is not God, but seeks to be our God.
    There is only one God, not many gods.
    How can secularists seek “diversity” on the one hand and seek to be our God on the other?
    Even “no god” has demands; “no god” has an agenda, spelled “Obama Care”.
    “No god” has a price: human, bodies and souls.
    Matthew 16:13-20; Acts 20:24

  6. Avatar Joe Fitzgerald says:

    Thanks Father Schrader for a very insightful article. However, when you quote JPII (speaking of contr.,steril,abortion) as saying, “they always really are sins, always and for everybody”. Is it possible you have taken JPII out of context. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of no one being ignorant of moral law, which is written in the conscience of every man, but without going into all the detail here in para. 1857 it speaks of 3 conditions for mortal sin, grave matter, full knowledge and deliberate consent. I fully agree with Father’s critical point , if we succeed in waiving the HHS mandate our work is far from done. Now science/medicine confirms human life begins at conception(Bills now in Congress stating so, need to be supported). Should we give Supreme Court Justice Blackburn(was that his name) a pass back in 1973 because he said he wasn’t sure or was he just guilty of intentional ignorance? I think for this Justice, the latter was the case. Keep up the good work, Father.

    • Avatar Fr. Dylan Schrader says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      I only reference John Paul II once, and my intention was not to quote him but simply to refer to what he said in Evangelium Vitae about cooperating with unjust laws (specifically, promoting a law that would allow abortion, for example, but limit it more than an alternative law). The footnote in the article applies to the sentence that preceded it, namely: “If the increased availability of contraception, sterilization, and abortion by such a mandate is inevitable, then practically the best that we might be able to do right now is seek to limit these evils by obtaining proper exemptions.”

      With regard to the Catechism on mortal sin, we distinguish between the objective and the subjective. When I say that abortion, contraception, and sterilization are always sins, I am referring to them as the “object” of a human act (I refer you to CCC, 1755-56). As objects of choice, these acts are always gravely sinful (i.e., they are “grave matter”). So, if someone commits one of these with knowledge of its gravity and with deliberate consent, then he becomes subjectively guilty of mortal sin. Knowledge and consent give to the act its subjective component. Absent sufficient knowledge or consent, subjective guilt would be reduced, but the act itself (the “object” referred to in CCC, 1750-51) would remain objectively a grave sin.

      Sometimes moral theologians use the terms “material sin” and “formal sin” to describe the distinction between an act considered objectively and the same act considered as freely chosen.

      In the article above, I am speaking only objectively. It was never my intention to judge anyone’s subjective guilt.

  7. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Addressing ‘The Mandate’ as a Natural Law issue would have been the correct first approach 40 years ago, with the ‘Religious Liberty’ issue to follow. Now that the horse is out of the barn (acceptance of abortion, sterilization, contraception, etc., even by so called Catholics), the federal government, and allied civil organizations, have begun a direct assault on the expression of religious beliefs in the public square. Clearly, this administration believes that the Catholic voter is sufficiently seperated from Church teaching that they can take this position to allow the uninterrupted accomplishment of the rest of their agenda. If not for that pesky First Amendment, they could openly pursue “Hate Speech” laws that would allow prosecution of religious leaders for preaching against all the secular rights issues, as is being done now in Canada and Europe. The Bishops are correct in their identification of this as their first priority. The barbarians are at the gate, and are intent on eliminating religious voices from any public commentary or expression. They consider the ‘debate’ over and they have won. The time for them to consolidate and advance all the issues is now. Note the use of the phrase “Freedom of Worship” as the public beginning of eliminating “Freedom of Religion.”
    The Bishops are very late coming to an understanding of this (most of the faithful are still clueless). They are divided on the reality with some being very reluctant to give up the government money that supports their programs, in spite of any “restrictions” that come with it. Pray that they are not so divided that the effort peters out before it accomplishes a reversal, and rejection of current government efforts to restrict religious conversation to the home, and then outlaw it entirely in the name of “Diversity.”
    We have been seduced by the relative religious quiet of the last 100 years and have forgotten what discrimination,rejection, and repression was born by our forebears not that long ago.
    The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

    • Avatar Fr. Dylan Schrader says:

      I think you make a great point and one which I have expressed in other venues (not so much in this particular article), namely, that we are late to the game. The immorality of the acts of which we are speaking, serious violations of the natural law, is something that we should have more firmly and more clearly professed and explained within the Church and also to the world at large decades ago. We are indeed left in a position where, practically speaking, the world does not understand natural law. The world might still understand religious freedom enough for us to gain a minor victory, and I think that is where the value of this approach comes in.

      Nevertheless, such a victory will remain minor unless we try to get back to the more fundamental issues. Doing what is right should not be an “exception” that we have to beg for, it should be the norm. If not cooperating in abortion and contraception becomes only about our religious freedom and not about what is really right, then are shooting ourselves in the foot in the long term. I don’t think we can settle for a “live and let live” solution when it comes to these matters.

  8. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    I agree. The decisions upcoming are not the end. They should be a beginning.
    Best case is a Supreme Court rejection of ‘Obamacare’and ‘The Mandate’ that comes with it.
    Worst case is the reverse.
    In either case, the Bishops must immediately follow on with a national effort to present the Catholic faithful the beauty of our teachings in these areas in a VERY public way. People of good will will follow. Blessed JPII has given us a start with his ‘Theology of the Body’ which has at best received a luke warm reception from the Bishops and outright ignoring of it from our Pastors and most priests i.e. one day seminars at the Diocesan level with none to little buy in or follow up at the parish ‘Pre Cana Program’ level.
    The recently released Gallup poll finding a majority of Americans as at least ‘partially’ pro-life shows that people are absorbing what they are seeing in ultra sounds, etc. Namely – in Abortion it is a baby we are talking about – and responding to that recognition in a ‘human’ fashion and questioning what they have been told. This is a HUGE change in public perceptions and one that we can take advantage of and build upon. Have confidence that when people see the truth, they will accept and act on it.
    Be Not Afraid!!!! Believe what we teach and teach what we believe!!!! The Ruler of the Universe is with us!!!!
    What’s that old song…..”Give me some men that are stout hearted men and I’ll soon give you ten thousand more……”

  9. Amazing to know that Fr. Schrader has spoken the truth to all!! Well done!! Let’s hope that our shepherds don’t miss the opportunity to use this time to evangelize all the faithful, especially those who have differences with Natural Law. Keep it up


  1. […] The HHS Mandate: Is it a Religious Liberty Issue? – Fr. Dylan Schrader, Hmltc & Pstrl Rvw […]