Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is demanding that the Obama administration rescind what he calls its "flawed and dangerous" decision requiring virtually all employers to offer employees health coverage that includes contraceptives and "abortion-inducing drugs."
In a letter he asked to be read at all weekend Masses in 266 area parishes, Chaput joined many other bishops nationally in criticizing the administration for undermining "both the principle of religious conscience and the First Amendment to the Constitution in an unprecedented way."
Unless the ruling is overturned, "faithful Catholics will be forced either to violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees," the archbishop said.
Catholics arriving for 5:30 p.m. confession and 6:30 p.m. Mass Sunday at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul expressed outrage and feelings of betrayal directed at the White House. The dispute risks alienating observant Catholics in an election year for the president.
"This has broad implications not just for Catholics, but for evangelicals, Orthodox Jews," said Christopher Jungers, a member of St. John the Evangelist parish in Center City.
"The downfall is going to be that organizations say, 'We aren't going to provide health care to our employees,' " he said.
A firestorm was touched off Jan. 20 when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that, under Obama's new health-care law, most employers and insurance plans would have to cover birth control free of charge as a preventive service for women.
The administration had already ruled that churches and houses of worship do not have to follow that requirement, but officials newly announced that many religious-affiliated institutions, such as hospitals, colleges and charities, must comply.
Nonprofit groups that do not now provide contraceptive coverage because of religious beliefs would get a year to comply with the directive.
"This is not merely inadequate. It is dangerous," said Chaput. "And it betrays the good faith of many Catholics who - until now - have supported the current administration with an honest will."
He urged Catholics to contact their representatives and senators in Washington.
"Your action on this issue matters - not just today but for many years to come; and in ways that will shape the ability of the Church to witness the Gospel publicly through her ministries well into the future," he said.
The rule was characterized by observant Catholics who came to the Basilica Sunday night as a "persecution" of their faith and an attack on religious freedom. "I feel like it's an infringement on my view as a Catholic," said Ann Post, of Oreland, a member of St. Genevieve's parish.
"It's a real affront to the church. It is an in-your-face gesture," said her husband, Tom Post.
Eileen Finegan D'Angelo, of St. Richard's parish in South Philadelphia, said, "Among my peers, there's a collective feeling of outrage," she said. "Catholics just need to be free to practice our faith and not put money toward these services."
Rosemarie Colon, of Cherry Hill, said a similar letter was read Sunday morning in her parish, St. Peters in Merchantville, from Bishop Joseph A. Galante of the Camden Diocese.
"I was very upset; I was misty-eyed," she said. "I think it's terrible, absolutely awful. President Obama has surrounded himself with Catholics who are Catholic in name only. They don't follow the rules."