SAN FRANCISCO –– If the Diocese of Santa Rosa is required to cooperate with the Obama administration’s mandate requiring most religious employers to provide no-cost contraceptive coverage, the diocese won’t, said Bishop Robert F. Vasa.

“If they shut me down, they shut me down,” the bishop said March 30 following a speech on Catholic health care at a three-day conference on Catholic health care reform hosted by Life Legal Defense Foundation and the Christus Medicus Foundation. The Archdiocese of San Francisco and the dioceses of Sacramento, Oakland and Santa Rosa were among the sponsors.

However, in an interview with Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper, Bishop Vasa said he believes the church will prevail on the issue because religious liberty is “enshrined in our Constitution.”

“Precisely because Jesus healed the sick, the church is involved in healing ministry,” Bishop Vasa said in his keynote address to the conference, stressing the Catholic Church’s commitment to health care. “We are involved in this based on the conviction that each person has unique dignity.”

Catholics must unite as they never have before if they hope to prevail against the federal contraceptive mandate, because the alternatives are bleak, according to speakers at the March 29-31 conference at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco.

“I think we have to mobilize our church in a way we never have before,” said William Cox, president and CEO of the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, an association of California Catholic hospitals.

“This is something we cannot fight unless we are united,” said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.

A remedy that the U.S. bishops are urging Catholics to support is the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, said Doerflinger. Supporters may send their lawmakers a note in support of the legislation through a link at

The proposed measure will ensure that those who participate in the health care system “retain the right to provide, purchase, or enroll in health coverage that is consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions.” It would amend only the new mandated benefits provisions in Title I of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to include the conscience protection that is already part of other federal health programs, according to the U.S. bishops’ website.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., introduced the bill in the House, where it remains in committee; it now has more than 200 sponsors. In the Senate, the bill’s chief sponsor was Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., but senators voted March 1 to table it. Blunt has said, “This fight is not over.”

The U.S. bishops as a group and individually have issued statements opposing the contraceptive mandate.

In the Santa Rosa Diocese, Bishop Vasa said he has taken the first steps to changing its health insurance coverage — an action he has taken twice before in Lincoln, Neb., and Baker, Ore. Bishop Vasa was a priest of the Lincoln Diocese from 1976 to 1999, when he was appointed bishop of Baker.

He requested that Anthem Blue Cross send him all 20,000 or more codes for procedures and payments so he can analyze exactly what is and is not covered. In the past, as an official of the Diocese of Lincoln and as bishop of Baker, Bishop Vasa said he changed health insurance to a self-insured plan that did not offer morally objectionable benefits to anyone.

In Baker and in Lincoln, Bishop Vasa broke from the established health insurance carrier to go with a self-insured plan that conformed completely to Catholic values, including opposition to contraceptives, sterilization and abortion. Most plans cover those procedures and drugs, even if they are not explicitly stated, Bishop Vasa said.

“I don’t do business with people who don’t think the way I do,” Bishop Vasa said.

“Catholic health care is about more than excluding any particular procedure. It is about being knowledgeable about what is in your plan and making a conscious decision about what you want covered and what you do not want to have covered,” the bishop said in a speech March 30.

He said he not only expects the plan to exclude abortion and contraceptives but it should also cover treatment after an attempted suicide, restoring fertility by reversing vasectomies and tubal ligations, and repairs after a botched abortion. “Good morals make good medicine,” the bishop said.

A new federal proposal issued March 21 suggesting third-party administrators pay the costs of contraceptives for religious employers reinforced the mandated coverage for self-insured Catholic hospitals and social service agencies. The U.S. bishops said that even with the new proposal, the mandate “remains radically flawed.”

Schmalz is assistant editor of Catholic San Francisco.