As many long time readers of this blog may recall, the late winter and early spring is a very busy time for those who work in the social ministry of the Church; Liturgically – of course – this time of year corresponds on the Church’s calendar to the season of Lent during which Christians across the world are called to undertake corporal and spiritual disciplines in order to prepare for the commemoration of Our Lord Jesus’ Passion and Death during Holy Week which culminates with the celebration of his Resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. But its not only the preparation for these most profound events on the Christian Calendar that is cause for the frenetic activity of late January, February and early March around here, instead much more mundane – and yet still important – pursuits than those ultimate ones require attending to as well. Roughly speaking – the season of Lent almost always corresponds to the legislative “budget season” for national, state and local government, and so for those of us who’s job it is to work for the protection and promotion of human life and dignity, this season means that we then set about to do those things necessary to bring the concerns of our Church to those in positions of power in Washington and Albany. The actual work attendant to advocacy efforts such as these involve everything from the exhilarating – actually meeting with United States Senators and Congress People, State Senators and Assembly Members and their staffs and discussing the impact of policies on the poor and vulnerable – to the hum-drum: ensuring that meetings are set up, and that every person has a “seat on the bus” and makes it not only to their destination, but – equally important – back home again. In fact, it has occurred to me that some of the workaday elements of the preparations for our advocacy efforts are a very good thing for me spiritually at this time of year if only in the sense that I can then “multi-task” some of the more tedious but still essential “chores” I do over to the Lenten sacrifices portion of the ledger. And more than this, it has also occurred to me that the “there and back again” nature of this kind of work actually corresponds roughly to the nature of advocacy work in democracy itself; especially for those who have been at these efforts for a long time like me. I have come to see that almost no issue is ever won or lost completely and forever, and as such it is truly the work – and indeed Christian duty – of every generation to be defenders of that which is laudable and essential for the promotion of human dignity and the flourishing of the human person, and so to, to equally combat that which is contemptible and stands against this dignity and flourishing. As such, the work of securing and promoting human dignity is both constant, and yet always new – and certainly never ever boring!
Of course, February’s hot ticket here in the Archdiocese of New York was for the trip to Rome to share with His Eminence Cardinal Dolan his elevation to the position of Prince of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI; the event itself was covered by just about every media outlet and was so thorough that you almost didn’t need to make the actual journey yourself to still feel part of Cardinal Dolan’s special honor. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite make the cut for that trip, but instead traveled first down to Washington D.C. with about 500 other Catholic social ministry professionals in year’s Social Ministry Gathering, and then later on in early March I traveled up to Albany with over 1,000 Catholics from around New York State for the annual “Catholics at the Capitol” Public Policy Forum Day. Both events were generally successful this year thank goodness, and although I wasn’t as fortunate as those who were able to accompany His Eminence to Rome (if only to enjoy the beautiful of Vatican City and partake in some of the delicious food), I have to say that this year’s advocacy trips – especially the one to Washington D.C. – were a little more momentous then those in years gone by. Some of this could have to do with the level of media attention that the meetings had this year, which – in contrast to years gone by where the attention paid by the media in general was zero if you discounted the coverage of the event in the Catholic press – was everywhere; wherever you turned the print, television and radio media at this year’s meeting were there. I’d like to think that some of this was because the reporters and their news editors had recently discovered some of the good work that the Church does in the social ministry field of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, ministering to the imprisoned and welcoming the stranger and were eager to cover this work….but my hunch is that the actual level of media coverage had a little something more to do with a set of regulations promulgated earlier this year in January by the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requiring that almost every employer – except for houses of worship specifically, but including religiously sponsored social welfare organizations – had to offer their employees health insurance coverage that includes sterilization, contraception and abortifacient drugs. In case some of you readers have been on a recent trip to Mars, these regulations have been the cause of quite a bit of controversy as of late, so much so that discussion of these regulations has filtered into the Republican Presidential debates, and triggered a response on the President’s part when he offered what he termed an “accommodation” for religious employers under the HHS rules, whereby the responsibility for covering contraceptive services for the employees of the religious organizations was shifted from the organizations themselves over to their insurers.(Funny enough, the press conference where the President announced these accommodations to the HHS rules took place while I was actually on the Amtrak on my way down to Washington D.C. for the Social Ministry Gathering; when my father called my cell phone to tell me of the President’s offer at the press conference, I responded the timing of the announcement was because the White House knew that the “Catholics were coming” – a bit tongue in cheek perhaps – but who knows!) While this compromise on the part of the President was a good first step, there remains some significant concerns on the part of the Church, particularly the fact that the definition of who the HHS deems a “religious employer” remains exceedingly narrow: covering only organizations who hire and serve primarily those of their own faith, and will also still involve the government in deciding exactly what is and is not effectively a “Catholic ministry”. In response to these accommodations, the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on March 14th issued a statement on Religious Liberty that invited the Executive Branch to continued dialogue in an effort to secure broader exemptions from the law that would not involve the Federal government forcing Church institutions to act against Church teaching, and urged Catholics everywhere to pray for religious liberty – at home and abroad.
Since then of course, the whole controversy itself has been sucked up into the vortex that is the “culture wars” in our society, where vitriol serves as oxygen that feeds a fire of misunderstanding and miscommunication that generates intense heat but very little light. So outrageous has the public discourse on this matter become that on the one side, you had a nationally prominent radio commentator speculating on the number of intimate encounters a graduate student who gave testimony before a Congressional Sub-committee in favor of the contraceptive mandate had on a monthly basis, and on the other, there was a mean-spirited and ignorant full page ad in the New York Times that called Catholic women “enablers” of the Catholic Bishops’ “war against women” urging them to “vote with their feet” and “exit – en Mass” in a tawdry attempt at double entendre. The whole situation is incredibly sad, and has obfuscated the entire issue of the religious liberty concerns of the Church, as often happens in our sensationalistic, media driven society when issues of sexuality and human reproduction are added into the mix.
Like most people, I have my own personal responses to the situation, and they correspond – like most personal reflections do – to my life’s experiences. While I do not practice law per se, as a graduate of law school I am very concerned about the erosion – both in the present situation and others – of institutional conscience protection. While the mainstream media often concentrates on violations of individual rights and freedoms, institutional freedoms often suffer a lack of public sympathy; this frankly is much to our determinant, because as anyone who has ever tried to bring about any kind of social change comes to realize, individuals effect social change collectively through the institutions of civil society – institutions such as the Churches and their social welfare agencies. The importance of this insight was brought home to me when – soon after my graduation from Law School – I had the opportunity to travel to several republics of the former Soviet-controlled Eastern Block soon after the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. I actually had traveled there with members of a group that was sponsored by the New York Times called “The Center for Independent Journalism”; the goal of this organization was to teach journalists, and the newspaper editorial boards that employed them, the ins and outs of how a “free press” operated – so long had the papers been under government control and oversight they had forgotten the habits they needed to make their now “free press” run. Being in those countries, at that time, with a group dedicated to teaching the principles of a free press made me very proud of our country and its freedoms – Americans are rightly very proud of our Constitution, and particularly our First Amendment, which guarantees for us freedom of speech, and of the press. But what we should not forget is the other essential freedoms that great First Amendment guarantees to us just as precious as our freedoms of speech and press. I think this is summed up best a famous First Amendment scholar and United States Court of Appeals Judge for the 9th Circuit John T. Noonan Jr. when he wrote, “an unregulated, unregistered press is important to our democracy. So are unregulated, unregistered Churches. Churches have played an important – no, an essential – part in the democratic life of the United States….In a secular age, Freedom of Speech is more talismanic than Freedom of Religion. But the latter is the first freedom in our Bill of Rights”.
As someone who as part of his job is asked to help Catholic Charities staff identify the “Catholic identity” of our work, I am equally concerned with the overly narrow definition of what constitutes our ministry. Whenever I am approached and asked why it is that Catholic Charities does the things that it does, I always find it instructive to turn to the 25th Chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel and ask the questioner to read the admonitions of Jesus as to what is required of us to live a righteous Christian life: feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the ill and visiting the imprisoned – it reads almost like our annual report! And of course, in our care for the least of our brothers and sisters, we try as best as we can to do so in a way that – in a phrase made famous by the Hard Rock Café – “Loves All and Serves All” – regardless of their race or gender, beliefs or religious practice. How is it that the drafters of the HHS regulations were unaware – or at least tone deaf – to this fact and the impact this could have on our good work? There are those who see malevolent intent in this action, perhaps this is true – or perhaps it was just naiveté – or maybe we weren’t telling our story long enough, and loud enough to enough people.
And so, I conclude this post right back where I began – “there and back again”: almost no issue is ever won or lost completely and forever, and it is the work of Christians and other people of good will in every generation to be defenders of that which is laudable and essential for all our human flourishing. It appears now that – at least for the short term – one of those good and laudable essentials that require renewed appreciation and defending – in addition to all those other things required to live lives of Human Dignity – includes our cherished right to religious liberty. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has an excellent page on their website that can help concerned citizens refamiliarize themselves with this foundational principle and steps needed to secure this essential liberty for themselves, for the Church and for all who cherish freedom of conscience.