Under considerable indirect pressure from the Vatican and more direct pressure from emboldened Catholic liberals, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops seem to have found a formula for continuing their “religious liberty” campaign against the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate while offering a rationale that sounds more in line with Pope Francis’ recent teachings. Here’s USCCB president Joseph Kurtz:

Pope Francis inspires Catholics and non-Catholics alike with his focus on the gospel call to serve “the least of these.”

Our faith calls us to put first the needs of our brothers and sisters who suffer in poverty, and Catholics are justly proud of our network of schools, hospitals and social service ministries that work every day to help the poor and vulnerable.

Yet the ability of these ministries to live out the fullness of our faith is in jeopardy.

The mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services forces countless Catholic schools, hospitals, and social service organizations to participate in providing employees with abortifacient drugs and devices, sterilization, and contraception in violation of Catholic teaching. The mandate went into effect on Jan. 1; ministries now are faced with the choice of violating our deeply held beliefs or paying crippling fines.

If these ministries don’t comply, the financial penalties may mean that some may have to close their doors. As that happens, the poor and those who serve them will be hurt the most. Forcing our ministries to divert funds from serving their neighbors to paying

So it’s the mandate, not the obdurate refusal of Catholic charitable organizations (or at least their overseers) to allow their employees to receive contraceptive services, that’s the threat to the “least of these” they serve.

Compare Kurtz’s broadside to this passage from a recent editorial from the National Catholic Reporter, also citing the teachings of the new Pope but urging the bishops to abandon the campaign against the contraception coverage mandate:

They [the bishops] need to embrace the exemptions and accommodations that Catholic colleges and hospitals say are workable and abandon their support of exemptions for for-profit employers, a fight they never should have picked in the first place. This dispute has disrupted too much critical business of the bishops’ conference. The Affordable Care Act is the closest we have gotten to a health system that cares for all citizens. Catholic hospitals and Catholic Charities should be among the leaders in signing people up for coverage, and the bishops should be directing their staff to find ways to make the program better.

One is tempted to ask, “What Would Francis Do?”, but U.S. Catholics are unlikely to get that sort of direct guidance from the Vatican. Clearly the bishops want to continue their political alliance with a Republican Party that barely even pretends to be concerned with “the least of these.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.