WASHINGTON – A century and a half ago, Pope Pius IX shipped a large block of marble here to be built into the Washington Monument. A masked group of hardened anti-Catholics stole it, broke it up and hid the pieces in the Potomac mud.

Not since then has the Catholic hierarchy seemed so politically helpless in America as it does now.

There were high-water marks: The election of Catholic President John F. Kennedy, after which Democratic politicians shouldered rivals out of the way to get their picture taken next to a bishop, and the 1939 laws in New York and other states commanding local public school districts to bus children to Catholic schools for free.

No more. On a getaway Friday, June 28, President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services issued its final rule on the so-called contraception mandate. It includes some minor bells and whistles crafted to overcome court challenges. But the HHS mandate effectively orders church-related institutions – not the churches themselves – to provide health insurance coverage for contraception, abortifacients and sterilization, all of which are proscribed by Catholic teaching and by some Evangelical communities.

This affects employees at 240 Catholic colleges and universities, 570 Catholic hospitals, 1,200 secondary schools, and thousands more parish schools and charities.

Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone commented, “Catholic and other religious institutions are going to be forced to make a drastic choice: To fund morally objectionable medical procedures, things like abortion-inducing drugs, or face exorbitant fines that could put some of our ministries and institutions in jeopardy.”

“An unprecedented and very dangerous line has been crossed that goes to the heart of freedom of religion,” said the Diocese of Arlington, Va. “This action does intolerable violence to our First Amendment rights.”

The Obama mandate doesn’t just brush up against the Constitution’s prohibition against the federal government’s establishment of religion, but callously invades it by claiming to decide by rule what a religious institution is, and isn’t.

On the eve of the Fourth of July, the cardinal archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, said he is looking the new regulation over, adding that it doesn’t fundamentally change the Obama mandate that orders coverage of morally objectionable acts. Dolan heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. At almost the same time, reports emerged that Dolan, as archbishop of Milwaukee, Wis., fraudulently hid church money so victims of sex abuse couldn’t sue for it. A stinging reminder of why the church has lost so much political clout.

It is hard now to avoid the awful possibility that the administration bears traditional Christianity deep-seated ill will. Obama did not need to do this. More than a year ago, he exempted thousands of businesses and labor unions from Obamacare mandates. With almost the same stroke as issuing this order, he temporarily exempted all employers of more than 50 people from the law. Private employers will get 18 months to prepare for enforcement. Church institutions must bend to his will by Jan. 1 or be fined by his IRS into the blind cave of eternal night.

I predicted two months ago that Obama would follow through on this. I then harbored the belief that legal challenges against this mandate, including one brought by Notre Dame, which awarded Obama an honorary degree four years ago, would prevail in the Supreme Court. Now, with the court’s majority striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, that doesn’t look quite as sure. It isn’t that the court ruled against DOMA that looks ominous, but the majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who suggested that traditional teachings about marriage may themselves be morally objectionable.