The American Catholic bishops are in a bind, as are all Catholic Americans. Having as a body effectively endorsed the Welfare State and accepted that the State is the guarantor of all individual goods (see Economic Justice for All, the 1986 American Bishops' "Pastoral Letter" on the U.S. economy), they have acquiesced in legalized abortion and are now faced with being forced to participate materially in providing artificial contraception and sterilization. That is, having accepted the benefits the State presumably confers, they now balk at the price.
The liberal media have been quick to exploit the situation, presenting the Catholic Church's position — as they and, unfortunately, many Catholics understand it — as hypocritical. The Church has, after all, despite decades of protests and demonstrations, permitted abortion to continue, even conceding the use of tax dollars to support the abortion industry. Requiring that religious institutions pay for contraception and sterilization doesn't seem as bad as abortion, so why all the fuss? Besides, most Catholics use contraception and some have sterilizations, so why not just recognize reality and come into the 21st century?
The general public — and the media that tell the public what to think — clearly doesn't understand the difference between allowing even a monstrously unjust law to continue for a time if you are not personally forced to do wrong, and a law that forces you to do wrong. In moral philosophy (which means simple common sense), we can — in some cases must — allow an injustice to continue if trying to end the injustice under current conditions would reasonably be expected to materially disrupt society.
This does not mean that we are permitted to let things stay as they are. There are two caveats to allowing unjust laws to continue that many people, even Catholics, overlook. The first is that we are not forced in any way to participate in the evil. Legalized abortion does not require that anyone have an abortion; to that extent the mealy-mouthed equivocation of the Pro-Choice position is correct: if you're against abortion, don't have one. (The issue of tax monies used to support abortion, directly or indirectly, confuses many people because they don't understand the principles of taxation, and our unnecessarily complex tax system obscures how tax monies are spent.)
The second caveat is that we must not allow matters to stay as they are. In social justice we are obligated to organize with others and work to reform our institutions, preparing the way to remove the unjust law in a way that reasonably ensures that people accept not having what they formerly regarded as a right.
Allowing an unjust law that does not force you to do wrong to continue — for a time — however, is substantially different from going along with a law that forces you personally to do wrong. When chattel slavery was legal, no one was legally required to own a slave, nor did the government provide subsidies, tax credits, or other benefits to slave owners.
When the government did support slavery, as with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the law was widely disobeyed, in some cases openly flouted. The Fugitive Slave Act was, until the Volstead Act (Prohibition), the most widely disobeyed law in U.S. history.
The political and economic forces behind the Fugitive Slave Act and the subsequent Dred Scott decision that overturned the Missouri Compromise eventually led to the Civil War. Prohibition led to the almost complete breakdown of civil authority in some areas, such as Chicago, and to the entrenchment of organized crime.
It is thus a supreme irony that America's first black president (who was also a senator from Illinois), who should be more sensitive than anyone else to the consequences of laws that force people to act contrary to conscience, has announced that he will not negotiate or give ground in any way on the issue of forcing religious institutions to violate religious principles. President Obama seems determined to overturn the "compromise" of Roe v. Wade and impose a modern day Dred Scott decision.
From his perspective, Obama's actions are eminently reasonable, and he has what appears to be solid support for his move, legally, politically and economically. Justice Roger Brooke Taney, of course, in 1857 believed he had equally firm support for the Dred Scott decision, which according to William Crosskey was a blatant attack on the Constitution of the United States. The Fugitive Slave Act, despite its futility, demonstrated the support of the federal government for slavery, as would the use of government troops to put down John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. David Christy's Cotton is King in 1855 argued that the economic survival of the United States and the British Empire depended absolutely on chattel slavery.
Obama has every reason to believe that the American bishops — and, of course, the laity of the Catholic Church whose votes ensured his election in 2008 — will (after a suitable display of bravado and bluster) cave in. The bishops' protests over Obama being granted an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame, bestowed by University President Father John Jenkins in open defiance of the bishops' authority, were clearly nothing for anyone to worry about, a tempest in a teapot. The bishops obviously lacked the power to keep even a single Catholic institution, and that one a virtual icon of American Catholicism, in line. The controversy (such as it was) blew over. Father Jenkins was not called to book for his act, and was even regarded as a Pro-Choice hero by many for what was characterized as a courageous stand in going with public opinion.
To clinch the matter from Obama's perspective, by allowing the State to become (as one enthusiast put it) "the sole intercessor available to the poor" (i.e., the source of every material good), the bishops have necessarily abrogated their moral authority. The bishops, now dependent on the State for funding the social programs they believe to be essential, are going to be forced to obey, despite anything they say. They have always given ground before, and the contraception mandate is no different from previous confrontations in which the bishops demonstrated their complete lack of power.