On Tuesday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan kind of let the cat out of the bag. Chatting amiably with Charlie Rose about how the Obama Administration is "strangling" the Catholic church, Dolan made clear that the crux of the problem is neither contraception nor religious liberty as usually understood, but the federal government's specification of criteria for what entitles a religious organization to an automatic exemption from the HHS contraception mandate. That he characterized as "attempting to define for the church the extent of its ministry and its ministers."
Never mind that it is a longstanding (and necessary) practice for the government to decide on criteria that entitle organizations to obtain religious exemptions from anti-descrimination law, taxes, and other legal obligations. Never mind that Dolan misrepresented the criteria enunciated in this case. Never mind that the White House has indicated its willingness to provide exemptions from the contraception mandate to Catholic organizations that fall outside its definition of those that are automatically exempt. Dolan & Co. want to be able to define the extent of the church's ministry and ministers for themselves. So how would they define it?
As the lawsuits make clear, they would define it to include Catholic hospitals and universities. Legally, however, most of these are not part of the Catholic church--i.e. they are independent 501 (c) 3 organizations, self-supporting and run by their own self-perpetuating boards. That includes the Catholic Hospital Association, which greatly annoyed the bishops by supporting Obamacare and which has not filed one of the anti-contraception mandate lawsuits. While they may employ priests and nuns, and may be understood as fulfilling longstanding Catholic commitments to provide health care, education and other important services, they do not in fact constitute ministries of the church under episcopal control.
Except that Dolan & Co. would have it so. How do I know this? Well, here's what the cardinal had to say when Rose asked him about HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recent invitation to speak at Georgetown University: “I do think that’s a problem Georgetown is the oldest Catholic university in the country. Part of Catholic identity is to be in union with the bishops.” What the contraception mandate has done, among other things, is given Dolan & Co. a whip for bringing these independent institutions to heel. (Yo, Notre Dame!) But as has become clear in the past few days, not all the bishops are comfortable about wielding it. And at the end of the day, the institutions are legally in a position to just say no.