NEW YORK –– In the weekly radio show "Conversation with Cardinal Dolan" that aired June 18, New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan said he is "hoping wise voices will prevail" before the new rules for the Department of Health and Human Services' contraceptive mandate take effect in August.
The cardinal, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told his co-host, Paulist Father Dave Dwyer, on the Catholic Channel on SiriusXM that the bishops are "kind of nervous" about the pending deadline and wonder how the federal government will respond to the more than 300,000 comments it received following the Feb. 1 release of the new proposed rules. They are to become effective Aug. 1.
The cardinal said the bishops realize the deadline to comply with the proposed regulations is fast approaching, but he also pointed out: "We don't really have the regulations yet. We don't have the bill."
The 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.
When it was first issued, the HHS mandate included a narrow exemption applying only to those religious institutions that seek to inculcate their religious values and primarily employ and serve people of their own faith. On Feb. 1, the federal government issued new proposed rules that exempt organizations that are considered nonprofits under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.
Cardinal Dolan said the HHS accommodations were "a step in the right direction," but he noted that they didn't answer all the questions of the U.S. bishops. He said the bishops, along with about 300,000 others, submitted recommendations to the HHS during a 60-day public comment period, which ended April 8.
"Apparently, HHS is mulling those over and will announce their response" prior to Aug. 1, he said, adding that he hopes government officials will consider the bishops' response that the HHS mandate is a violation of conscience for Catholic and other religious entities morally opposed to what it requires.
"We're kind of waiting now for this (final rules) to be announced so we'll see what's going to happen," he said, adding that he hopes "the government will make the next step in the right direction."
The cardinal noted that the bishops were clear on the fact that they didn't need the government to define what religious groups have to do to be faithful to their religion, stressing that the "unfortunate division" of houses of worship and charitable ministries doesn't work.
"What we do flows from what we are," he said, noting that the government's distinction between dioceses and parishes and the "allied works of charity" falls short.
In comments filed with the HHS, the USCCB raised concerns that the new proposed rules exclude from the definition of religious employer various organizations that "undeniably are 'religious' and undeniably 'employ' people, such as Catholic hospitals, charities and schools.
"The government's proposed definition of religious employer still reduces religious freedom to freedom of worship by limiting the exemption almost exclusively to houses of worship," the USCCB argued.
Cardinal Dolan said he remains optimistic the government will pay attention to the issues the bishops and others have raised particularly about protecting religious conscience.
In his visit with President Barack Obama on the issue nearly three years ago, he said Obama told him that he wanted to protect religious freedom and he had the highest regard for the Catholic Church's work in health, teaching and charity. He also told the cardinal that he didn't want "anything this administration does to impede your good work."
The cardinal said he hopes that such reasoning "prevails" in the final decision on the rules to implement the HHS contraceptive mandate.
Even if the church could "morally justify some type of remote cooperation with these guidelines," he added, "it is time to draw the line." If the church tries to comply, he added, "it is a slippery slope. Where will it stop?"