Recently the President of our United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had this to say, “Religious liberty stands front and center in the debate these days – and that’s good.” When members of the United States Supreme Court ruled that churches do indeed have the fundamental freedom to choose their own ministers without government interference, the First Amendment of our Constitution was affirmed. But when the administration of our national government ordered almost every employer and insurer in the country to provide sterilization and contraceptives, including some abortion-inducing drugs, in health plans, the free exercise of religion, which ranks first in the Bill of Rights, was denied. So what should we do about it?
Well, I suggest we take a good look at the way the friends of Planned Parenthood went to the rescue when the Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation decided to bar funding to Planned Parenthood, a strong ally of pro-choice America and a well-known partner in our nation’s abortion industry. It has been difficult to learn exactly why the Foundation made that decision, but pro-choice America was uninterested. They simply wanted the funding restored and they worked hard so that within three days the Foundation reversed course. It was a great example of the power of our pro-choice media and of an incredibly strong public reaction from all who were obviously quite fearful that pro-life America might possibly have taken a huge step forward in its efforts to protect human life.
When the administration in its ruling about health insurance, which would force Catholics to violate our consciences or drop health coverage for employees, many of us bishops across the United States immediately notified our parishioners in late January about the decision and encouraged them to learn more about the matter and to contact Congress in support of legislation that would reverse the administration’s decision. Most parishioners learned of this matter in the final weekend of January or the first weekend of February. Obviously we cannot and will not comply with such an unjust law. We have been made second class citizens and it is imperative that we regain our religious freedom.
In my letter I reminded parishioners that the church in the past has been able to count on the Catholic laity to stand up and help church leaders protect our sacred rights and duties. I was hopeful that the present generation of Catholics could be counted on to do the same. Unfortunately, too many of our people have remained rather timid in asserting their rights as people of faith. Just a few days before the administration came out with this ruling, our Holy Father addressed a group of American bishops who were visiting him in Rome at that time. He reminded the bishops that a legitimate separation of church and state cannot be taken to mean that the church has to be silent on some issues. Nor should the state choose not to heed the voices of committed believers in determining the values which shape the future of the nation.
What he said next was especially insightful with respect to the present assault on Catholic health care. Pope Benedict stated, “It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds an increasing expression in political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.”
The Holy Father went on to encourage bishops and Catholics the world over to maintain contacts with Catholics involved in political life and to help them understand their personal responsibility to offer public witness to their faith, especially with regard to the great moral issues of our time: respect for God’s gift of life, the protection of human dignity and the promotion of authentic human rights. If we are seriously interested in renewing society as a whole, then such a consistent witness on the part of Catholic people to these deepest convictions will be a major contribution.
With respect to the present ruling by the administration, it is interesting to note that since 1973 there has been a law in effect which states that no individual is required to take part in “any part of a health service program or research activity funded in whole or in part under a program administered by the Secretary of Health and Human Services if it is ‘contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions.’” But HHS had ruled that all health plans in the future would be required to provide coverage for certain procedures in the list of “preventive services for women,” including breast cancer, lung cancer, AIDS, and even pregnancy.
The very narrow “religious employer” exemption from HHS eliminates most of our Catholic schools and hospitals. Why? HHS asserts that the only truly religious organizations are those that both hire and serve primarily people of their own faith. Even Jesus would not have been “religious enough” to satisfy that exemption since he healed and served people without consideration of their faith.
Some look upon our church’s position of this matter as discrimination against women. But our teaching on abortion, contraception and sterilization is based on respect for the power to help generate a new human life, a power held by both men and women. Hence health plans in accord with church teaching do not cover male or female sterilization. Presently, church employees who disagree with our position can purchase the insurance they seek elsewhere. It is our hope that HHS will leave the law the way it has always been. If HHS refuses, it will be important for us to pursue our legislative representatives patiently, perseveringly and persistently to pass a “respect for rights of conscience act” which would prevent the new health care format from being used to violate insurers’ and purchasers’ moral and religious beliefs.
My friends, this is not the moment to sit on the sidelines and watch. This is a time to get involved. Let’s make sure that government leaders remember that ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Let’s move together front and center in defense of religious liberty.