Pope Tells Notre Dame: Defend the Freedom of the Church

By Barbara Boland | January 30, 2014 | 4:57pm EST

Pope Francis and Father John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, at the Vatican on Jan. 30, 2014. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - Pope Francis on Thursday told the president and trustees of the University of Notre Dame--which is suing the Obama administration for mandating that its health insurance plans cover sterilizations, contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs--that Notre Dame should defend the freedom of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church teaches that sterilization, artificial contraception and abortion are intrinsically immoral.

“The vision which guided Father Edward Sorin and the first religious of the Congregation of Holy Cross in establishing the University of Notre Dame du Lac remains, in the changed circumstances of the twenty-first century, central to the university’s distinctive identity and its service to the Church and American society,” the pope told the delegation from Notre Dame, which visited with him at the Vatican.

“Essential in this regard is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors,” said the pope, according to a transcript published by the Vatican.

“It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness,” he said. “And this is important: its identity, as it was intended from the beginning. To defend it, to preserve it and to advance it!”

Prof. Carter Snead of Notre Dame Law School saw the pope’s words as encouraging the university in its court battle against the Obama administration’s efforts to restrict the freedom of religion.

“The Holy Father’s words strike me as a timely and profound encouragement to Notre Dame in its continuing efforts to defend its religious liberty in court,” Prof. Snead told CNSNews.com.

They “are a powerful reminder to all of us who love and work for Notre Dame that we have the duty to preserve and expand the university’s witness to the truths affirmed and proclaimed by the Church,” he said.

“As Pope Francis observes, this witness requires the freedom to organize and conduct the work of the university in a manner that reflects these truths,” said Snead. “It seems to me that the dangerous effort to ‘dilute that indispensable witness’ is the HHS contraceptive/abortifacient mandate.”

On May 21, 2012 Notre Dame filed suit against the regulation that the Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that requires almost all health insurance plans to cover sterilization, contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs. A federal judge initially dismissed the lawsuit in December 2012, arguing that Notre Dame lacked standing at the time to bring the suit. The university filed suit again in December 2013.

Although some other organizations that are suing to stop the sterilization-contraception-abortifacient mandate have been granted injunctions against enforcement of it while their complaints work their way through the courts, a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on December 31, 2013 denied Notre Dame’s emergency motion for a stay.

After that action by court, Notre Dame continued to press its lawsuit, but began to comply with the federal regulation that required it to notify the third-party administration of its self-insurance plan that the administrator would be providing the disputed coverage.

“Having been denied a stay, Notre Dame is advising employees that pursuant to the Affordable Care Act, our third party administrator is required to notify plan participants of coverage provided under its contraceptives payment program,” said Paul Browne, Notre Dame’s vice president for public affairs and communications, according to WNDU. “As part of an ongoing legal action, however, the program may be terminated once the university’s lawsuit on religious liberty grounds against the HHS mandate has worked its way through the courts.”

A professor of history at Notre Dame, Holy Cross Father Bill Miscamble told the National Catholic Register that he was disappointed “with the tepid way in which Notre Dame has acquiesced with the Obamacare provisions and authorized its health-insurance administrator to implement the HHS mandate.”

Gerard Bradley, a professor at the Notre Dame School of Law, wrote in a post on National Review’s Bench Memos, “The reasons for [violating the ACA contraception mandate] would be, as Notre Dame asserted in its formal complaint in the local federal court, that so ‘triggering’ the coverage would be tantamount to facilitating abortions in violation of the university’s Catholic beliefs.”

Under the Obamacare regulation, the university says in its lawsuit, “Notre Dame must provide, or facilitate the provision of, abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraceptive services to its employees in violation of the centuries’ old teachings of the Catholic Church.”

“If the government can force religious institutions to violate their beliefs in such a manner, there is no apparent limit to the Government’s power,” says the Notre Dame lawsuit. “Such an oppression of religious freedom violates Notre Dame’s clearly established constitutional and statutory rights.”

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