by Kathryn Jean Lopez
“I’m a devout Catholic and I honor my faith and love it ... but they have this conscience thing.”
That’s Nancy Pelosi, speaking about religious-liberty concerns many Catholics and others have in the wake of the 2010 passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Subsequent Department of Health and Human Services regulations issued this year insist that the law mandates contraception coverage as part of the implementation of President Barack Obama’s signature legislation as many, including the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, had warned.
The “conscience thing” of which the former Speaker of the House of Representatives speaks is actually not an unreasonable hang-up but a matter of basic civics. It’s a religious-liberty thing. A constitutional thing. When the media miss as they frequently do the fact that much of the political controversy of the last few years involve moral issues beyond the economy and jobs, this is what they are missing. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of who we are as a people.
Around Thanksgiving in 2009, an ecumenical group of theologians, scholars, religious leaders, and activists got together and signed a document that warned: “We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.”
It was this kind of confrontation we’re having now about the health-care act that they had in mind. Life, marriage, and religious freedom were their priorities, Princeton’s Robert P. George, who organized the gathering, told me at the time: “Important decisions are now being made or soon will be made. These decisions will either uphold or undermine what is just and good. There is no avoiding the issues or evading the decisions. Both sides in the great moral struggle understand this. Forces favoring abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, the redefinition of marriage, and the like see this as a critical moment for advancing their causes. The Obama administration is explicitly with them on some issues and is at least broadly sympathetic on others. Moreover, in the aftermath of the 2006 and 2008 elections, their causes have unprecedented strength in both houses of Congress as well as in many state legislatures. Obviously, they also have great support in the mainstream media and the elite sector of the culture more generally.”
And so here we are.
Nancy Pelosi, who frequently points out that she is a “devout Catholic”, is far from the only Catholic who is a leader in pursuit of policies that endanger religious liberty by denying some Americans simple conscience rights. Should a Catholic group have to cover contraception, including abortifacients, in employee health-care insurance plans? Yup, Kathleen Sebelius another Catholic, pro-choice, Democrat and secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has insisted.
But the leadership has come from the very top. The president has consistently dismissed critics on conscience issues. During the debate in the run-up to the legislation’s March 2010 passage, he even went so far as to accuse his critics of Commandment-violating. During a conference call organized by liberal religious activists during the summer of 2009, President Obama said: “I know there’s been a lot of misinformation in this debate. And there’s some folks out there who are, frankly, bearing false witness.”
At the time, he said, “You’ve heard this is all going to mean government funding of abortion”, the president said. “Not true.” He added that the “fabrications” were “put out there in order to discourage people from meeting what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation.”
But what exactly does he think our ethical and moral obligations are? When you insist your critics are unserious and malicious, you prevent significant debates about details that fundamentally are about not mere policy but who we are as a nation.
And here is where Sebelius provides some insight. Sebelius has actually been refreshing, in a way: much more honest about what the administration’s aims are. “We are in a war”, she told a recent Chicago Power of Choice Luncheon. Opponents of the administration, she said, are trying to “roll back the last 50 years in progress women have made in comprehensive health care in America”. And, now that the bill has passed so we can know what is in it, President Obama does have his moments. During a fundraiser in St. Louis this fall, the president spoke about the health-care law: “Think about what it means for women”. A man in the audience immediately replied, “Birth control”. And President Obama confirmed: “Absolutely. You’re stealing my line”.
“No longer can insurance companies discriminate against women just because you guys are the ones who have to give birth,” he went on. Another audience member engaged: “Darn right!” to which Obama responded: “Darn tooting.”
But is contraception a fundamental health-care right? Could abortion be? These are the questions that are not being debated out in the open.
Behind the “War on Women” fog that being the common attack whenever questions of liberty and conscience and funding are raised regarding abortion or contraception is an ideological push. One for which it is only moral to have no moral limits. In medicine. In what government can mandate, insisting it knows best.
Nikolas Nikas, president of the Bioethics Defense Fund, has seen this attitude before and sees it on the increase. During a recent campus debate on the HHS recommendation and the religious-liberty violations that result from it, Nikas pointed out, as others have, that the HHS exemption is so narrow not even Christ Himself would be eligible for it. The only way He might be eligible for the exemption is if He served only Catholics. (Which would not be the Christ of the Gospels.) When Nikas made this point, his debate opponent insisted: “Make it narrower.”
But that’s not who we are, is it? That’s the question that had better be animating more civic involvement today and in upcoming elections.
There has been some challenging talk of stewardship in Washington lately. What are the responsibilities of a federal government and what aren’t? Earlier this year, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan engaged in a conversation with Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who is also the current president of the US bishops’ conference, about budget-making and how Catholic social thought informs policymaking. The ongoing health-care debate involves these as well as questions of liberty and identity.
During his homily on the Feast of Christ the King, November 20, Archbishop Dolan recalled: “There was a time, only sixteen decades ago, when Catholics had to keep vigil right here in New York, at Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral, against those who would visit violence and intimidation upon them. And there was a time, at the end of the ‘Roaring Twenties,’ when our beloved governor, Al Smith, was harassed and denounced because of his faith. History teaches us not to be complacent.”
Archbishop Dolan continued:
This past week the Bishops of the United States met in Baltimore, our first diocese. Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport spoke to us about the need to be watchmen, vigilant for threats on the horizon. And the peril he identified, not on the horizon but already on the front porch, is the erosion of religious liberty in our beloved United States. As Americans, as citizens, as religious believers, as human beings it is the first freedom.
Without religious freedom, no other freedoms are secure. It’s true that Americans do not have to face intimidation, harassment, imprisonment, and death for practicing our faith as is the tragic case in several countries in the world today. Yet our proud tradition of religious liberty the first freedom in the Bill of Rights needs a robust defense today.
Religious liberty is not only the right to come to Mass on Sundays or pray at home.
Regrettably, there are many voices in society that want religious believers to get out of our public life. Those voices were once marginal, but have grown stronger. They have forgotten the contribution American believers have made to our history, for example, in the fight for independence, in the crusade against slavery, and in the civil-rights movement. Their message is that citizens may have private opinions and interests, some of which may be religious, but religious belief must be driven out of our public discourse, our public policy and our public life.
To that, on the feast of Christ the King, we have to say, politely but firmly, No!
Yes, religion is personal; but it is never private.
What does it mean to be a subject of Christ the King in America? Part of the answer is given in today’s Gospel by the Lord Jesus Himself, in the great Biblical charter for the corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned. This has been a hallmark of American religion from the founding, and in particular it has been the hallmark of the Catholic Church in New York. Every day and every night, out of love for the least of these and out of obedience to Christ the King, Catholics do all of that through our vast network dedicated to the corporal works of mercy health care, education, poverty relief, immigration services, and the defense of human life. We do all of this precisely because of our Catholic Faith. It is an indispensable part of our faith, as necessary as the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Our religious belief compels us to do it, and our religious liberty guarantees us the right to do it.
But what happens when Catholic Charities can’t be involved in adoption placement because the state mandates that it place children with homosexual couples? What happens when a school can’t operate without providing contraception coverage?
How do we provide an alternative witness when there are so many Catholics providing cover for these conscience-violating policies? For this kind of infringement on religious freedom? And also for a however well-intentioned doublespeak as policies are disingenuously sold by activists who really do believe that the full panoply of what is available and possible in so-called “reproductive health care” is not just tolerated but mandated regardless of being a moral affront to many taxpaying Americans never mind to long-held cultural norms?
At Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, these questions have helped lead to a legal case against the federal government, filed on behalf of Belmont by lawyers with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Mark L. Rienzi, assistant professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, part of the team in the Benedictine monks’ corner, tells me: “This lawsuit is not about forcing others to believe and act as the monks do, but rather about preventing the government from forcing these monks to act as the government imposes. Nothing at all prevents employees of the college from purchasing contraception the monks just shouldn’t be coerced by the government to be the ones to provide [it]. And if students or employees need or want insurance plans that pay for these items, they are free to go to any of the vast majority of other employers and schools that have no religious objection to them. But everyone at Belmont Abbey willingly came there knowing that their diplomas and paychecks would be signed by Catholic monks.
“It is not a ‘war on birth control’ to be true to your religious convictions that prohibit you from using, or facilitating others’ use of, contraceptives, sterilization, or abortions, as an offense against human life”, Rienzi continues. “The monks of Belmont Abbey College aren’t raiding local pharmacies to steal the pill off the shelves. They are simply asking not to be dragged to the pharmacies to pay for them.”
The Belmont monks “didn’t ask for this lawsuit the administration gave them no choice. They either have to violate their religious convictions by providing these drugs or they have to kick their students and employees off of health insurance and pay steep fines.”
When there is such blithe dismissal and manipulation in the face of fundamental liberty concerns, it becomes obvious that this administration didn’t play it straight on this constitutional issue.
Paying attention to this is our civic and moral responsibility if this country is to continue to be a light to nations. If we are who we say we are.
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