On January 20, 2012 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reaffirmed a rule that under the new health care law, virtually all private health care plans must cover sterilization, abortifacients, and contraception.
The rule is set to take effect August 1, 2012. Non-profit religious employers that do not now provide such coverage, and are not exempt under the rule’s extremely narrow definition of religious employer, will be given one year to comply. One commentator noted that even Jesus and his disciples would not fall under the rule’s narrow definition of what accounts for a “religious employer”.
This ruling will force Catholic hospitals, universities and charity organizations that have historically provided immeasurable service to our society (especially to the poorest and most vulnerable) to provide this coverage for its employees even as it contradicts firmly held beliefs about the dignity of life and morality that these institutions are founded upon.
Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York has noted that this mandate is unprecedented in its narrow definition of what accounts for a religious employer and that it has drawn a definitive line in the sand. “In effect, the president is saying that we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.”
This is why this mandate matters to Catholics.
Why should the mandate matter to others? People of goodwill may not agree with the Catholic Church’s teachings on when life begins or about the purpose of the sexual union of man and woman but the mandate to violate ones conscience should give everyone pause. One of the core beliefs that our nation is founded upon is the free exercise of religion and the right of men and women to live as their conscience determines.
In May, 2011 Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I. of Chicago published a book entitled, “God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World.” I would like to share a few quotes from this book that in many ways are proving to be quite prophetic.
Public life, from a secularist point of view, must be constructed on the assumption that God does not exist or, if he does, that his existence makes no difference. Secularism’s espousal of public atheism in this country is based not on racial superiority, as was the case in Nazi Germany, or on supposedly scientific history of class warfare, as was the case with Leninist states, but on the myth of human progress carried exclusively by a scientific method limited to the study of material reality. This project occupies the entire ground of public human action and public discourse in the pursuit of truth.
Freedom of religion extends beyond freedom of personal conscience and beyond freedom to worship. It includes freedom for religious institutions to have a public voice, to be public actors.
When secular life is constituted without respect for religious freedom, it becomes profane, and persecution of religion becomes inevitable. There is no guarantee that even democratic institutions will prevent this outcome. Independent courts, a free press, an elected legislature can all be manipulated, and have been in our own history, to subvert various freedoms and reflect the prejudices of controlling interest groups as well as those of ordinary citizens.
A government that determines what is a religious ministry and what is not, what is the nature of an institution such as marriage, which predates both Church and state and is the creature of neither, when human life begins and when it can be taken without a penal trial has exceeded the boundaries of limited governance and is already on the road to totalitarianism. While democratic in form, it has betrayed human freedom.
Some have referred to the recent HHS mandate as the “Obama administration’s war on the Catholic Church”. I do not believe I would go that far and I think it wise to avoid such inflammatory and specific language which can make it seem like this is just a Catholic issue when it, in fact, carries truly important ramifications for everyone in our society. Yes, Catholics, all Christians and all religious persons need to be concerned about this mandate but so do all Americans. It is a First Amendment issue. I respect the good that the Obama administration has achieved in very turbulent times and I am sure, that there are ways that the Church and the administration can work together for the common good. But I would also say that it is exactly in turbulent times that we need to hold to our core principles rather than abandon them.
I do not see the administration as so much intentionally opposed to religion as just more secularist in outlook and, I would say, a specific understanding of secularism that just does not “get” religion and therefore, knowingly or unknowingly, seeking to bracket religion off and leave it out of the equation. Elsewhere in his book, Cardinal George (building on the thought of Bl. John Paul II) proposes an understanding of secularism as “the ground between the sacred and the profane” (“profane” here being used not in a negative, pejorative context but as that distinct from the purely sacred). Proper secularism does not necessarily have to be held in opposition to the sacred and it is an injustice to both when it is solely understood this way. Secularism can actually be the ground where religious thought and non-religious thought encounter, dialogue and mutually enhance one another.
I remember being struck by a news clip I saw of the White House Christmas celebration and President Obama remarking how the Christmas “story” has inspired people throughout the centuries. Now, Mr. Obama is our president and I respect him for that and he is a politician who knows how to choose words that appeal to a vast variety of people while not offending but I would beg to differ here with the president. It is not a “story” that is at the core of my life and the purpose of my life; it is a continuing encounter I have with the living God who refuses to be controlled or locked away. A secularism that seeks to bracket off the sacred just does not get this and that is a sad thing and it does not bode well for the future.
Due to the reasons shared above, the HHS mandate does matter to everyone and to who we are as a nation and to what we say our core principles are.
I encourage everyone to truly reflect and weigh out the consequences of this mandate.
I encourage people to work to overturn this mandate and to respect the right of conscience.