A survey of headlines this week show an ongoing controversy regarding proposed conscience provisions at the Department of Health and Human Services and that HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement is not renewing a grant to the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services coordinating programs for victims of human trafficking.

That the Department of Health and Human Services has an ongoing battle with the USCCB on matters of conscience is nothing new. Over the past year, the USCCB and other Catholic organizations have been in a constant struggle with HHS over the definitions of religious freedom and conscience clause exceptions to health regulations. Most specifically, the central issue appears to be whether or not Catholic organizations will be legally required to provide insurance coverage for contraception, emergency contraception and abortion services. In August, the USCCB argued that the contraception mandate included a definition of religious freedom that is ‘inexplicably narrow.’   This week, the USCCB in a joint statement with heads of Catholic Universities released a statement on this issue.

So what is it in the HHS regulations to which the Bishops and Catholic leaders, including Sr. Carol Keehan at the Catholic Health Association and Fr. Larry Snyder at Catholic Charities USA object?

In describing as “narrow” a religious exception from the proposed mandate, Catholic Charities USA president Father Larry Snyder, in a 13-page Sept. 28 memo to an HHS administrator, said the mandate will “force organizations that oppose contraception for religious reasons to choose between (1) offering these services in violation of their religious beliefs, and (2) facing the prospect of substantial fees if they choose not to offer health insurance coverage. This lose-lose choice would impose a ‘substantial burden’ on these organizations’ exercise of religion.”

Under the HHS proposal, to qualify for a religious exemption, an organization would have to meet four criteria: “(1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a nonprofit organization” under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.

Concerns over how these regulations will affect Catholic healthcare organizations and Catholic organizations as employers have been widely covered in the press and blogosphere. None of these debates are new; however, recent decisions at HHS this week seem to reveal a new area of conflict: funding for victims of human trafficking.


Human trafficking is a widespread and insidious global problem demanding action, as I argued in an earlier post “Victims of Slavery or Prostitutes: Paying attention to human trafficking.”    Since 2000, the United States government has begun dedicating targeted resources for victims of human trafficking (Trafficking Victims Protection Act) which has been reauthorized by Congress in 2003, 2005, 2008 and now in 2011.  As part of this law, the US government awards grants to non-governmental networks and agencies targeted programs for victims of human trafficking. Over the last ten years, the money awarded has grown and grants awarded through “Per Capita Victim Services Contracts.” Since 2006, one of these partnerships has been between HHS/Office of Refugee Resettlement and the USCCB’s Migration Refugee Service (MRS).

Marking the tenth anniversary of TVPA, the USCCB  issued a set of reflections and recommendations for “HHS Service Mechanism for Foreign National Survivors of Human Trafficking”

 Since 2002, USCCB has provided services to and advocacy on behalf of foreign national adult and child survivors of trafficking, serving more than 2,632 victims of trafficking and their eligible family members. It also founded the Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking in 2002 to work on advocacy and education. Members of the Coalition were instrumental in providing input on provisions of the TVPA and its subsequent reauthorizations.

USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services began advocating for refugees after World War I and entered into partnership with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services in 1979 developing programs for unaccompanied minor refugees. At this point, MRS is considered the largest voluntary refugee resettlement agency in the world (see the Reflections document for further details). With such a large and developed national network of partnerships, it is not surprising that MRS would be a logical choice for partnership with HHS/ORR in addressing victims of human trafficking.

From April 2006-September 2010, USCCB’s subcontractors served 1,833 survivors of trafficking, including 51 child victims of trafficking, and 420 of their family members with derivative status through the HHS/ORR–USCCB Per Capita Victim Services Contract.

This partnership, however, is coming to an end. In an unexpected and controversial move this week, HHS sent a letter to inform the USCCB they would not be renewing grant funding to the USCCB/MRS program, as reported on the USCCB Media Blog. What is going on here?  According to Sr. Mary Walsh, spokesperson for the Bishops:


The program worked well on the ground. but not so well for distant administrators promoting the abortion and contraceptive agenda, who bristle at the fact that in accord with church teaching, USCCB won’t facilitate taking innocent life, sterilization and artificial contraception. MRS anti-trafficking programs ran successfully for six years in harmony with these moral convictions until the American Civil Liberties Union brought suit against the government for not forcing the USCCB program to provide these services as a part of the program. The suit’s outcome is pending, but ORR apparently has made its own decision apart from any judgment of the court. So much for the Administration’s guarantee of conscience protection.

Trafficking of human beings is one of the great modern-day scandals, but at least until now, the U.S. government sought to sincerely address the issue. It asked USCCB for help when regional programs weren’t reaching victims outside the usual hotspots for trafficking. USCCB created an extraordinary program in conjunction with several partners, Christian and secular, including Lutheran Family Services, Jewish Family Services, Salvation Army, YMCA affiliates, domestic violence shelters, World Relief and others. Only one-third of its subcontractors were Catholic-affiliated, but with the USCCB infrastructure they reached virtually everywhere in the USA.

Now ORR seems to have yielded to abortion politics. It has undercut a worthy program, limiting the numbers served, while increasing the time and money it will take to serve them.

What is going on here? Are the Dept of Health and Human Services really playing politics with victims of human trafficking? Is Sr. Walsh over reacting?

From discussions with staff at USCCB, this change at HHS came as a shock. As they continue to examine what happened and why, it is understandable to see why the USCCB is viewing all of their “battles” with HHS as connected. On face value, it is eerie the extent to which it does appear to be about abortion politics.  However, as I survey the various battles over conscience going on right now, I cannot help but ask –

 Does HHS actually understand the nature of Catholic social services?

 The narrow language of the conscience provision seems to miss the very point of Catholic social services. Fr. Snyder explains,

Catholic Charities has been the principal social services agency of the U.S. church for more than a century. “Throughout our history, we have always been able to serve those in need while maintaining our religious identity,” Father Snyder said. “These federal regulations, if implemented, would compromise in unprecedented ways the ability of our agencies in local communities across America to provide these services.”

The mandate and mission of all Catholic social services, whether it is Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals, or programs for victims of human trafficking is about the gospel mandate to serve the poor and vulnerable. Catholic social services maintain the principles and values of the Catholic commitment to human dignity and the sanctity of human life.  The fundamental commitment to life and dignity of all human persons, with particular focus on the poor, vulnerable and marginalized is the basis for Catholic coalitions with other social service providers, community organizing groups, etc. In the case of the Human Trafficking programs, only 1/3 of the programs funded through the MRS programs are Catholic groups. If these programs limited their scope to only employing/working with Catholics and only serving Catholics in need it would be a gross violation of their mission. If they were to limit their advocacy to mainly poor Catholics or Catholic victims of human trafficking it would be a gross violation of their Catholic identity.

A few weeks ago, we engaged in a theological roundtable on prudential judgment, in which I focused on the role of conscience in Catholic moral theology. The question of conscience is primary for Catholic moral theology and participation in social services.  The question of identity is one of fidelity to the Gospel. Simultaneously, this requires Catholics to be engaged in ministering to the poor and vulnerable and in doing so to uphold their conscience. Catholic Charities cannot but maintain its position on sanctity for life and offer assistance to all in need regardless of creed. It is this same commitment that leads Cardinal Mahoney and others to oppose immigration laws which would attempt to restrict offering of social services to undocumented immigrants – including the threat to ignore provisions of such laws that violate human dignity and would violate the mandate of Catholic teaching to minister to those in need.

Back to the issue of human trafficking – I cannot say for sure what motivated HHS to cancel the USCCB/MRS grant. While the loss of funding will greatly impact the programs as they exist now, I have no doubt that the MRS will continue to advocate for and assist victims of human trafficking, as they did long before the US Government passed TVPA.  But I am deeply concerned that those making these decisions at HHS do not understand the very purpose and nature of Catholic social services (something I find particularly disconcerting under HHS Secretary Sebelius).  And, unless you understand that, I fear we are doomed to talk past each other concerning the role of conscience and religious liberty in all of these matters. And, as evidenced this week, it is not just about contraception and health insurance regulations but can impact all Catholic social services, including outreach to victims of human trafficking.