What if the Catholic bishops aren’t bluffing and would close Catholic hospitals and schools rather than comply with an HHS mandate that would force them to violate their consciences?

Ed Morrissey poses this question today on Hot Air. Morrissey quotes a letter from Chicago Cardinal Francis George, who warns his flock that “two Lents from now” many Catholic institutions could be closed because of the mandate. Here is some of what Cardinal George said:

This year, the Catholic Church in the United States is being told she must “give up” her health care institutions, her universities and many of her social service organizations. This is not a voluntary sacrifice. It is the consequence of the already much discussed Department of Health and Human Services regulations now filed and promulgated for implementation beginning Aug. 1 of this year.

Why does a governmental administrative decision now mean the end of institutions that have been built up over several generations from small donations, often from immigrants, and through the services of religious women and men and others who wanted to be part of the church’s mission in healing and education? Catholic hospitals, universities and social services have an institutional conscience, a conscience shaped by Catholic moral and social teaching. The HHS regulations now before our society will make it impossible for Catholic institutions to follow their conscience.

Morrissey has done some research and estimates that Catholic hospitals account for about 12.6 percent of U.S. hospitals and in 2010 had budgets totaling $100 billion. The Catholic Church also runs 7,500 elementary and secondary schools.

Morrissey raises a disturbing issue: Does the president want such institutions to go out of business to make people more dependent on the government? I can imagine that the NEA, powerful teachers union that is a key component of the president’s base, would mourn the loss of Catholic schools. The demise of Catholic hospitals would undoubtedly move the country closer to a single-payer system for healthcare.

I agree with Morrissey that the bishops are not going to cave on this: violation of one’s conscience is serious business. The hierarchy in the U.S. has tended to be liberal, putting forward positions on such issues as immigration and health care that, until now, were more in line with the Democratic Party. But the mandate is a game changer.

It will be shocking if the U.S. turns into a country where the Catholic Church can’t provide services without denying teachings of the Church—and all over the issue of free contraception, which is already widely and inexpensively available.