It’s Presidents’ Day as I prepare this column.  By the time you read this I should already be in Israel with more than 95 pilgrims on a visit to the holy places where Jesus Christ was born, lived, died and rose from the dead.  The pilgrims and I will have much to pray about during our time away from western Oregon.  Some potential serious conscience problems have arisen as a result of the Federal Health Reform Law.  The issue has divided Catholics, and as a bishop and pastor, I feel caught in some hostile crossfire.

It is an election year.  Many priests dread election years because our own Catholic people are frequently and openly divided about the issues and the candidates.  Partisan divisions about candidates are understandable.  But political differences about matters like conscience rights and religious freedom are more than troublesome.  We Americans have enjoyed freedom of conscience in federal law until now.  The media isn’t helping because it chooses to obfuscate the conversation by focusing on “women’s health issues” and Catholic teaching about the importance of chastity in sexual activities.

To be honest, I was very grateful I was not testifying before Congress, as was my brother bishop, William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut in mid-February.  He had been invited to express the concerns we Catholic bishops have with the current administration’s plan to require us Catholics to violate our consciences in order to assure that contraception and sterilization are readily available for all people.  Why am I concerned?  Well, immediately three women legislators skirted the issue at hand, namely, religious freedom, and rudely interrupted the testimony with this query, “Where are the women?”  Unfortunately, the panel that had been brought together by the chairman of the committee included five men, no women.  Not too smart a move these days.  I could have quickly mustered some very articulate, intelligent and faithful women who could have defended religious freedom as well as any man.  The legislators knew that, but anything to distract attention from the real issue. 

Because we are talking about the availability of contraception and abortion, many women see this as their issue and men should stay out.  But both men and women play a role in the procreation of offspring.  Obviously women carry a heavier burden, but the responsibility for new life belongs to both parties.  Sad to say, many men don’t live up to their responsibility.  I can understand the anger of women.

Then just before Lent I received a “Dear John” letter from a Portland attorney.  His hang-up was contraception.  He was so blinded by his personal acceptance of contraception that he too skirted the real issue at hand concerning religious liberty.  Many Catholics find themselves in the same position.  They look upon chastity as an outmoded virtue.  They no longer make an effort to strive to lead a chaste life.  Casual sex is so widespread in the secular culture that this unhappy man was left to conclude that “the bishops do not speak with authority on matters of sexuality and particularly on matters of contraception.”  In fact, he seems to have given up so much on advancing the cause of sexual morality that he stated, “If you and your brother bishops truly oppose abortion, then you must support contraception.”  Talk about throwing in the towel.

The health care mandate, which certainly involves women, and men too, and also facilitates immoral sexual behavior, most seriously violates the consciences of so many of us with regard to religious freedom.  Catholic individuals, communities and institutions are being compelled to make available and actually pay for procedures and so-called medications that denigrate chastity as a virtue worth embracing.

Nowadays many people are quite upset about widespread pornography, readily available through the media, both material and virtual.  Must a Catholic salesman include pornographic materials on his magazine rack in order to facilitate the immoral choices of some of his customers?  I don’t think so.  Why in the world would our government expect a Catholic hospital or charitable organization to provide services and items for sale that go against their conscience?  That has never been the practice in our nation and there is no need for it to become the practice of the American people. 

Yes, the decision of the administration would allow organizations with religious objections to the requirement that all health insurance plans cover contraceptives and sterilization to decline to cover them.  But it would compel the insurers to provide contraceptives free of charge to those they insure.  In other words, religious employers will be required to “include the same objectionable coverage as secular employers do” – but the decision to do so, “will soon be taken away from them, as the coverage will be inserted into their plan directly by the insurer over their objections,” as recently stated by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo Chairman of the Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee. 

The way things stand now the only way to make a change that would accommodate Americans’ right of conscience is legislation.  The hope is that a law will be passed that would not forbid those who provide, sponsor or purchase health coverage from negotiating a health plan that is consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions.  There is time to find such an accommodation and we all hope and pray that this will be resolved quickly. 

Some people, including Catholics, see the stand of the Catholic bishops as one in opposition to our current President and therefore a matter of partisan politics.  Frankly, any student of Catholic social teaching understands very well that no political party embraces the full spectrum of Catholic social teaching.  I wish it were otherwise, but the right wing won’t support the church on immigration reform and the safety net for the poor.  The left, on the other hand, is intolerant of our demand for religious freedom, particularly when it comes to sexuality and marriage.  Long ago Jesus said that some evil can only be overcome by prayer.  This is a struggle with evil, not with evil people.  We all make mistakes. 

We have a responsibility to say, “Wrong.  Let’s make it right.”  And so, let us work and pray, humbly, fervently and perseveringly, while doing our best to dodge the ill effects of our current Catholic crossfire.