Archive for the ‘Religious Liberty’ Category

The Power of the Powerless

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

In my last post, I outlined the need for resistance against unjust laws that threaten the freedoms of religious and pro-life people.  In this post, I’m going to present a “menu of resistance” — essentially a list of things that people can do to give actual life to their conscientious objections to injustices like the contraception and abortion mandates, attempts to force the recognition of same-sex “marriages”, restrictions on free speech, and the like.

Before presenting these suggestions, I would like to stress several important points.

First, this is not an official statement or position of the Archdiocese of New York — it is my opinion, and mine alone. Take these ideas for what they’re worth, but they are not attributable to the Archdiocese in any way.

Second, I don’t want anyone to be under any illusion here — some of these suggestions may lead people into legal difficulties with the authorities.  Governments generally are very intolerant of dissent and civil disobedience.  So people should assess their level of risk, and prepare themselves to accept the consequences of their actions.

Third, and most important, the watchword of resistance to injustice is always that we speak the truth with love.  That is non-negotiable.  Our aim is the conversion of hearts, not the exertion of power.

With that having been said, here are some suggestions about how people can

  • Learn about your rights.  Most states have laws that grant protection to religious belief.  For example, here in New York, our Human Rights Law contains fairly broad protection against discrimination on the basis of religious belief, and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for believers.  Courts in New York have already held that opposition to abortion is protected under these laws.
  • Take advantage of the law.  Many unjust laws provide for exemptions and appeals.  For instance, private employers can file for an exemptions from the HHS abortion/contraception mandate.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if HHS received a letter from every parish, every school, every hospital, every nursing home, every Catholic employer in the United States — thousands of requests for exemptions that they would have to process?  Do you think that might let them understand how significant an intrusion their mandate is?
  • Use the government’s own legal process.  Appeal any denial of a request for an exemption.  File complaints with civil rights offices of government agencies when they try to force you to cooperate with unjust laws.  Explain to them that complying with the law would violate your Constitutional rights.  For example, you can file a complaint with the Civil Rights Office of HHS here.  All states (like New York) and most localities also have human rights commissions — file complaints with them as well.
  • Be persistent.  Protest letters to government agencies are likely to be ignored at first, or summarily denied without any reason.  If that happens, appeal to higher authorities at the agency, and go up the ladder, all the way to the person in charge.
  • Ask your elected officials for help.  Send copies of your complaints and appeals to your representatives in Congress or the State Legislature.  Ask them to intervene with the agency on your behalf.  Insist that they send you a response.  Go to their district office and ask for help in person.
  • Always tell the truth. Never tell a lie to a government official — if it’s a federal official, that’s a crime.  So, for example, if you are called upon to fill out a form, and it asks for an answer that you cannot honestly give, leave it blank and write a cover letter explaining your objection.
  • Don’t pay for injustice.  Refuse to pay fees for insurance coverage for abortion and contraception.  Write to your health insurance company and ask for a rebate for any funds spent on abortion.  When they ignore you, write to the board of directors and the president of the company.  If they insist that you pay, send them the fee in pennies, write a polite protest letter.
  • Write to your elected officials.  Make clear to them that you want them to pass just laws, and repeal unjust laws.  Do it over, and over, and over.  Join email networks like the New York State Catholic Conference Advocacy Network and the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment and send easy emails to your representatives.
  • Write to candidates.  Explain to them that you will never vote for them unless they oppose unjust laws.  If you can’t think of anything else to say, tell them that you agree with Cardinal Egan:  “Anyone who dares to defend that [an unborn child] may be legitimately killed because another human being ‘chooses’ to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name”.
  • Don’t vote for them.  Speaking for myself, I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. If you don’t respect human life, don’t see the need to preserve marriage as one man and one woman, and won’t defend religious liberty, I won’t vote for you.  I refuse to choose “the lesser of two evils” — because then, all I’ll ever get is evil.
  • Participate in public witness.  It is vitally important that we be seen by the general public as sane, reasonable, committed people.  Participate in prayerful and peaceful vigils like those run by the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants.  Join positive, well-informed rallies like the ones sponsored by “Stand Up for Religious Freedom”.  Always obey the law.  Remember — numbers don’t matter — witness does.
  • Support lawsuits against unjust laws.  There are many great organizations that are fighting in court to defend religious liberty, like the Alliance Defense Fund and the Becket Fund.  If you have some extra, send them some cash.  Join their lawsuits — wouldn’t it be great if a million Catholics joined a gigantic class action suit against the contraceptive and abortion mandates?
  • Refuse to speak the lie. Always tell the truth — abortion is not health care, contraception is bad for women, men and society, marriage is only a union of one man and one woman, and religious belief is not hatred or bigotry.  Remember, your silence may be taken as agreement or surrender, so make sure that you speak out.
  • Don’t cooperate in the lie.  Don’t do anything that will recognize the lie.  For example, don’t give your employees information about contraception or abortion coverage, erase it from your company’s plan books, refuse to recognize any same-sex marriages.  Remember that human rights laws protect religious liberty.  If you think your rights are in danger, use the magic words — “I’m going to consult with a lawyer”.  Then call a group that defends liberty, like the Alliance Defense Fund.
  • Stick together. One of the things that people find demoralizing is the sense that they’re all alone, and that nobody agrees with them.  But we are not alone — we’re a gigantic movement.  So, write letters to the editor of your newspaper, post comments on friendly blogs (and ignore the flames that come back in response), put the truth up on your Facebook page (even if people will “unfriend” you), pass around supportive emails, join a pro-life organization like the Knights of Columbus or your local pro-life committee.
  • Pray, pray, pray.  For everyone involved — those being oppressed as well as their oppressors.  This is not going to be easy.  But remember what St. Paul said:  “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)
  • Resistance reminds people of a sense of their power, even when they appear to the whole world to be powerless.  The truth, expressed with love, is an enormously influential force.  Worlds and lives can change, when people have the courage to testify to the truth.  We can lift each other up by our steadfastness.

    Even if we have no idea how our actions will play out, each individual moral act will have a ripple effect, the ends of which we cannot foresee.  Even if we never see the end result, we can always be satisfied that we have been faithful to our beliefs.

    And we can never underestimate the power of the powerless.  Especially when God is with us.

     

    Revision and Resistance

    Monday, May 14th, 2012

    Most people are not aware of it, but the founding documents of our nation have been fundamentally re-written in recent years.  Here is how the key passage of the Declaration of Independence has now been revised to read:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that some people are created more equal than others, that some of them are endowed by their government with certain alienable rights that can be given or taken away at any time, at the whim of the government.

    And here is part of the First Amendment to the Constitution:

    Congress shall make many laws respecting an establishment of religion, and prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

    We now live in a nation that is systematically revising its intellectual and legal foundation.  We are in grave danger of abandoning its commitment to fundamental human rights, rooted in human nature and natural law.  That foundation is being replaced by a system of positivism and secularism.  I have written on this blog many times about this trend.  For a fuller explanation of what it means, check out Cardinal Dolan’s important address to Fordham Law School.

    In concrete terms, we can see these threats to religious liberty and fundamental rights in many places: the HHS Mandate, the abortion mandate in the health care law, the radical re-definition of marriage, and efforts to suppress the speech of pro-lifers.

    In the face of these threats to our liberties, ordinary citizens frequently feel powerless.  After all, the government is very large and very powerful, and we think we are isolated and alone.  We fear for our livelihoods and our families if we run afoul of the law.

    So what can we do?

    We must resist.

    The starting place for resistance is to understand what it means, and what it does not.  I strongly urge everyone to read two key works that explain the reasons and tactics for resisting unjust laws enacted by civil governments — Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless.

    These essays stress a number of essential points:

  • Resistance is a duty of all citizens when faced by injustice.  It is not an “extra-credit” activity.
  • It must be always be grounded in the truth.  It makes no compromise with lies, and always seeks to expose them.
  • It must always be pursued with love and respect.  It is not an excuse for violence and lawlessness.
  • The goal is conversion of heart on the part of those who support injustice, not overbearing their will with power.  It’s message always is “come, join us”, and never “we will force you to agree”.
  • The most important tactic is our willingness to testify to the truth by our words and our actions, and our refusal to cooperate with injustice and lies.
  • Underlying this duty of resistance is an important understanding of the freedom of conscience.  My conscience is not just reflected in my external decisions, but it involves the very core of who I am as a human person.  It is the inner sanctuary where I encounter God’s law.   It is in my conscience that I hear the voice of God, speaking the truth to me.  It is there that I must be true to myself, and to the will of God.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the document of the Second Vatican Council, On the Dignity of the Human Person (especially paragraph 3), explain this beautifully.  These documents should also be studied with care.

    The government may attempt to coerce my external cooperation with injustice by imposing penalties, fines, and so on.  But no government, and no law, can force me to accept a lie as the truth.

    That is the heart of resistance — the ultimate freedom of the human heart.

     

    Mandate Fact #3 — Dragging Words Out of Our Mouths

    Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

    One of the most common claims that we’ve heard is that the HHS mandate actually won’t be a big deal in practice, and that the Church is either “crying wolf” or being hyper-sensitive.  The argument is that the Administration’s “accommodation” means that the responsibility for paying for the offensive services has been shifted from the employer to the insurer, so religious employers and individuals have nothing to worry about.

    This is not at all accurate, and fails to account for how the mandate will work in practice.

    The reality is that the mandate will drag words out of our mouths that we would never freely choose to utter, and force us to do things that we would never freely do.  It will coerce direct and repeated conduct and speech by Church employees — acting on the authority of and in the name of the diocese and the bishop.

    Consider how an employer selects and administers a health insurance program for their employees.  Contracts for health insurance coverage must be negotiated and signed by a diocesan official, usually a high ranking official like the director of Human Resources, the Chief Financial Officer, or the Chancellor.  These contracts are then packaged into a plan booklet, which is issued by the Human Resources office in the name of the diocese, and usually accompanied by a letter to employees from a high ranking official — or even the bishop himself.  Details about the plan are usually incorporated into the official personnel manual of the diocese, which is issued by the Human Resources department and often promulgated by the bishop himself or a high ranking official designated by him.

    Officials in the Human Resources department, and every individual department and institution, will process applications for insurance coverage, and will routinely discuss the details of the plan with current and prospective employees.  In the case of any self-insured diocese, there is a further layer of involvement between the diocese and the services, since diocesan officials or their agents will have to issue checks drawn on diocesan funds, to pay for the services.

    At each of these instances, a diocesan official would be taking formal and specific knowledge of the details of the health insurance plan.  They will also be required to do things — taking a action or making a statement — that specifically endorse the insurance policy as a formal act of the diocese, and thus of the bishop himself.

    This strikes directly at the heart of individual and institutional freedom of conscience.  Throughout American history, we have shown by exempting people from laws that would violate their religious beliefs — for example, think of Jehovah Witnesses and the Pledge of Allegiance, or Quakers with the military draft.  Our laws contain hundreds of such exemptions.  They represent, in many ways, the best part of the American character.

    This regulation, on the other hand, represents the worst part of modern America — the exercise of raw political power to deny the rights of an entire class of people, and to benefit a favored class of political supporters, all in the service of an anti-life ideology.

    We must resist.

    Mandate Fact #2 — Big Brother is Coming to Visit our Churches

    Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

    This is the second in a series of posts about the HHS Mandate that all health insurance policies cover contraceptives (including drugs that cause early abortions) and sterilizations.  There are so many misconceptions about what this mandate will involve, that I thought it would be helpful to lay out the facts.

    Supporters of the mandate like to say that the various “compromises” and “accommodations” proposed by the Administration will ensure that individuals and religious institutions will be left alone and won’t have to do anything that violates their rights.

    This fails to appreciate how the mandate will work in the real world.  This mandate will inevitably lead to intrusive and offensive government investigations into religious organizations.

    In order to qualify for the religious employer exemption, every religious organization will have to file with HHS a certification that they satisfy all the criteria.  Since our parishes and schools are each separate employers, every single parish and every single school will have to file such a statement.

    By filing that statement, every single one of our parishes, schools, and other agencies will be vulnerable to compliance investigation by HHS.   Think for a second about this staggering scenario.  Imagine an HHS employee who has the authority to grant or deny exemptions, and thus to levy onerous fines.  This official will have the authority to come into our buildings and demand that a pastor or principal produce proof of the religious mission of the parish or school.  He could demand that they document how they and their staffs spend their time, to see if they are really engaged in religious work.  He can demand records about the religious affiliation of their employees and staff, and on the students in the school or religious education program or youth sports program.  Nobody knows what criteria he will use to evaluate this information, or what standards the parish or school will have to meet.

    It is difficult to conceive of a more intrusive and arbitrary government interference with the internal operations of a Church agency.  It’s like a scene from a Kafka novel.  Anyone who has ever had dealings with the IRS, the EPA, the Unemployment Office, or any other powerful, impersonal, unaccountable government agency, would recoil in horror.

    This kind of intrusion is utterly inconsistent with authentic religious liberty, as upheld in the recent Supreme Court decision in the Hosanna Tabor case, which upheld the freedom of churches to govern their internal affairs, free from state interference.  In fact, the risk of this kind of entanglement between the government and religious institutions was a significant factor in that decision.

    Is this really what we want — where the government will come directly into the internal affairs of our churches and pass judgment on whether we’re “religious” enough?  In America?

    Thanks to the HHS Mandate, it’s not only conceivable, it’s inevitable.

    Mandate Fact #1 — The Religious Employer Exception is Very Narrow

    Monday, March 26th, 2012

    The Church has been spending a great deal of energy trying to educate people about the HHS Mandate that all health insurance policies cover contraceptives (including drugs that cause early abortions) and sterilizations.  There are many misconceptions about the scope of the mandate.

    I have now blogged on this subject several times, but now I’d like to explain some of the essential facts that people need to know about the impact of the mandate.

    We frequently hear the argument that the Church is not justified in objecting to the mandate, because  the employer exemption — the main subject of the series of “compromises” and “accommodations” announced by the Administration — encompasses all churches and religious orders.

    This is not accurate.  The extent of the religious exemption in the health care law (officially known as the “Affordable Care Act” or “ACA”) is so narrow that it will reach very few Church institutions.

    We must recall that, in the Archdiocese and in many other dioceses, each individual parish, school, and institution is a separate legal corporation.  Under the law, they are considered the actual “employer” of their staff — not the diocese as a whole.  It is also important to recognize that the ACA imposes inter-related mandates on individuals, employers and insurers — but only employers are afforded any possibility of conscience protection.

    In applying the actual exemption, we will have to do an institution-by-institution analysis.  Under the law, our parishes, schools, and other agencies would be exempt only if all four of the following criteria are met:

    (a) its purpose is the inculcation of religious values,
    (b) it primarily hires persons who share the organization’s religious tenets,
    (c) it primarily serves person who share those tenets, and
    (d) it is a nonprofit as described in sections of the IRS code relating to churches, their integrated auxiliaries, conventions or associations of churches, and the exclusively religious activities of a religious order.

    It is likely that the exemption would cover most parish churches.  But note that it is only “likely” and “most”, since it is by no means certain that all Catholic parishes “primarily hire” Catholics.  Under federal, state and local laws that ban religious discrimination, only a few parish positions that would be considered ministerial (e.g., Director of Religious Education, music directors) can be reserved for Catholics, and all other non-ministerial positions (e.g., secretaries, maintenance men) must be open to non-Catholics.  In fact, for those positions, it is probably illegal even to ask about an applicant’s religious beliefs.  As a result, it is entirely conceivable that some parishes would fail to satisfy the “primarily hires Catholics” requirement of the exemption — an astonishing result.

    I also wonder how many of our schools would be covered by the exemption.  Certainly, one of the primary purposes of our Catholic schools is to inculcate religious values, but what if HHS decides that it has to be the sole purpose, in order to qualify?  In addition, our schools are open to children of every faith, and many of them have a majority of non-Catholic students — which means they would fail the “primarily serves Catholics” requirement.  Again, this would be an amazing result — that the government would decide that a Catholic school is not enough of a religious institution to qualify for the exemption.

    As for our social service agencies, and hospitals, there is no question that they fail each part of the test, and could not avail themselves of the exception — their purpose is not to teach religious values, and they neither serve nor employ primarily Catholics.  Once again, we have the absurd result in which agencies who absolutely consider themselves to be religious in nature and in mission, will be found by the government to be not sufficiently religious.

    These basic facts are important for people to understand, if they are going to fully appreciate the extreme nature of the HHS mandate, and how it will violate our religious liberties.

    More to follow.

     

    Rallying for Religious Liberty

    Friday, March 23rd, 2012

    Today is the second anniversary of the passage of the health care reform bill, known as the Affordable Care Act. Today was also a day on which thousands of Americans, across our nation, gathered at rallies to defend religious liberty.

    I was privileged to address the rally at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, both to add a few words of my own, and to read a letter of support from Cardinal Dolan.

    We stood in the shadow of the statue of George Washington, one of the great defenders of religious liberty. We gathered at the spot where the first Congress enacted the Bill of Rights. We were there to decry the threat to religious liberty posed by the Affordable Care Act.

    In his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul warned of the dangers of a totalitarian form of democracy — where laws are enacted that violate the fundamental moral law, and endanger authentic freedom and dignity.

    The ACA takes a dangerous step in that direction. To understand this, we must look behind the details of mandates, “accommodations” and “compromises”. We must recognize that the ACA embodies a totalitarian mindset that is fundamentally incompatible with liberty.

    This law reaches every American citizen, every American business, every religious organization. Its reach is unprecedented, and vast. All individuals and institutions in America will be brought into line with an state-approved anti-life ideology that views fertility as a threat, pregnancy as a disease, and children as a burden to be eliminated. Churches and religious organizations will be defined by the government, and vulnerable to penalties if they dissent or resist. Faith-based institutions will be subject to intrusive investigation by officials who will pass judgment on the nature and legitimacy of their religious purpose and the beliefs of their staffs and the people they serve. Religious people will be coerced into speech and actions that endorse and promote things they find morally reprehensible. Even members of religious communities, like the Sister of Life, will be forced to violate their sacred vows or face punitive fines.

    The temptation is to tinker around the edges of this threat, make compromises, and protect narrow institutional interests. But all that does is delay the inevitable, and lull us back into denial.

    Surely we have passed that point, and instead have reached what biographer Eric Metaxas has called a “Bonhoeffer moment”. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German Lutheran theologian, worked mightily to resist the National Socialist ideology and the Nazi regime. At first, he tried to do so within the system, but eventually he realized that this was not possible, and that he had reached a time to stand firmly but lovingly in defense of religious liberty and the Church, even to the point of suffering.

    By no means am I comparing our current government with the wicked Nazi regime. But evil laws come in many flavors and sizes. The laws of our nation that authorize the slaughter of the unborn are evil. The laws that permit the government to restrict the right to conscience of individuals and Churches are evil. It does not matter that they are enacted through the democratic process and have the veneer of legality. They offend against the laws of God and natural human rights.

    We cannot let things go further down the path to totalitarian democracy. We must speak the truth with love, and resist by all lawful and peaceful means.

    Where Do We Go From Here?

    Monday, March 5th, 2012

    There has been a great deal of action on the new federal mandate that all health insurance policies cover contraceptives (including drugs that cause early abortions) and sterilizations.  There is also a great deal of misinformation, political spin, and outright deception going around about what is actually at stake, and what has happened.  Here are a few key points to keep in mind:

    The Web of Mandates in the Health Care Law

    Remember the background for this situation — it comes from the health care reform law, which is a comprehensive regulation that impacts everyone in the United States.  That law imposes three levels of mandates:  (1) all individuals will be required to have a health insurance policy, or pay a fine to the government; (2) all employers (with a few exceptions for small businesses) will have to provide their employees with an insurance plan or pay a fine to the government; and (3) all insurance companies will have to cover a variety of things, including “preventive services”.  We must understand these legal requirements, if we’re going to understand the significance of this new mandate.

    The Contraceptive/Abortion Mandate

    Last summer, the Department of Health and Human Services, acting under the authority given to them by the health care reform law, announced regulations to define what had to be covered by health insurance policies under the rubric “preventive services”.  These regulations would require all employers and health insurance policies to cover contraceptives (including drugs that cause early abortions) and sterilizations.  There was an extremely narrow exemption for religious employers, but no exemption for religious individuals or insurance companies with objections.

    There was considerable public furor in response, and thousands of people — including the U.S. Bishops and many other religious groups — filed comments with HHS, asking for the rejection of the regulation or the granting of a broader religious exemption.  Nevertheless, on January 20, 2012, HHS announced that they were going to implement those regulations without any modification whatsoever.

    There is No “Compromise”

    In response to the renewed public furor that followed the issuance of the final regulations, the President announced on February 10 that there would be a “compromise” to address the religious liberty objections of churches and other faith-based institutions.

    But here’s the key thing to remember:  no details about this “compromise” have been announced.   The Administration has made clear that they are not open to any further concessions on religious liberty. The original regulations have become law — there is absolutely no substance whatsoever to the “compromise”, beyond promises of something at some undefined time in the future after the next election.  It’s all smoke and mirrors and political spin.

    The net result is that there is virtually no way out of this mandate — it is very, very broad, and the “religious liberty” exemption is very, very narrow.  Very few employers — and no individuals or insurance companies — will be able to claim conscientious objector status.  There is no “compromise” in this regulation — nothing.

    It’s Not About Banning Contraceptives — It’s About Religious Liberty

    Sadly, access to contraceptives, at low or no cost, is virtually universal in the United States.  Nobody is calling for them to be outlawed, and nobody is giving employers the power to ban their employees from buying them.  That’s all media and political spin — it’s an outright lie.  This is not about contraceptives.  If people want to use them, that’s between them and God.

    This is about government coercion against churches.  It’s about the fundamental human right to tell the government to “leave us alone” — don’t make us cooperate with practices that we find immoral.  As the U.S. Bishops’ Conference has said:

    “Under the mandate, the government forces religious insurers to write policies that violate their beliefs; forces religious employers and schools to sponsor and subsidize coverage that violates their beliefs; and forces religious employees and students to purchase coverage that violates their beliefs.”

    That’s contrary to the basic principles of American democracy, and that’s why we’re opposed to it.

    What is Being Done to Fight This?

    The U.S. Bishops have been very outspoken in opposition to the mandate, and in defense of our religious liberty.  Every bishop in the United States has condemned this mandate.  Leaders of many religious communities have condemned it.  Leaders of other faiths — Orthodox, Protestant, and Jewish — have joined in opposing it.

    Just last week, an attempt was made in the U.S. Senate to add an amendment to a spending bill, to provide protection for religious individuals and institutions.  This particular tactic was chosen because the rules of the Senate require a super-majority of 60 votes before a bill can be brought to the floor for a vote — this is a legacy of the old days of filibustering.  But the rules permit an amendment to be approved by a simple majority — 51 votes. It was hoped that this amendment would pass both the House and the Senate, and that the President would not veto a large and important spending bill, just for the sake of this provision. Unfortunately, the Senate did not approve the amendment — it only got 48 votes, just shy of the number needed for passage.

    This leaves the Church with several options at this point:

  • Continue pressing Congress for action — There are several bills before Congress that would correct the problems created by this mandate.  Bills like the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012 deserve our support.  We must keep pressing  Congress with emails and letters in support of them (an easy way is to go here).  Unfortunately, our New York Senators and most of the Congressional representatives from the Archdiocese are unlikely to support our position.  But we must keep the pressure on.
  • Going to court to defend our rights — Several lawsuits have been filed already, attacking the mandate, and more will be filed.  The grounds for the cases include the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  The entire health care law is currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court, and a decision will be handed down later this year.
  • Educating ourselves and others — This is a very complicated issue, and many people are suffering from political fatigue at this point in the seemingly-perpetual Presidential campaign.  But there is so much dis-information out there that we must redouble our efforts to make sure that people understand what’s really going on here, and what’s at stake.  The U.S. Bishops’ website has many valuable and easy-to-understand resources that we can use in our parishes and communities.
  • Supporting our bishops and standing united with them — The supporters of the mandate are trying to drive a wedge between Catholics and our bishops, and are forming alliances with Catholics who either dissent from Church teaching on contraception and abortion, or who would rather stand with politicians than their shepherds.  Our bishops are being battered in the public square, and the level of anti-Catholic bigotry is simply astounding.  This is a time for all Catholics to rally behind the standard of Christ — and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our bishops.
  • This is just one stage of a long, ongoing battle to defend religious freedom in our nation.  This liberty is under continual attack from our own government.  Our Lord promised that the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church.  We must be fervent in our prayers, and steadfast and vigilant in our defense of the Church, and the rights of individuals to live according to their faith.

    The Sisters of Life Speak Out

    Thursday, February 16th, 2012

    Today, the Sisters of Life issued a statement against the iniquitous HHS mandate that all health insurance plans cover sterilization and contraception (including drugs that cause abortions).  This is an important contribution to the discussion, because it presents a problem with the mandate (and with the health care reform law in general) that has not adequately been considered — the effect on individual religious sisters, brothers and priests.  Here is the statement, with a particularly important passage emphasized by me:

    The Sisters of Life join with the Catholic Bishops of the United States, and leaders of many other religious communities, in strongly objecting to the Department of Health and Human Services rule for “preventative services,” and the “compromise” announced by President Obama regarding religious liberty.  This mandate will gravely violate the individual and collective religious liberties of the Sisters of Life and millions of others by forcing us to pay for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and artificial contraception against our conscience.

    The Sisters of Life is a religious community of consecrated women, founded in 1991 by John Cardinal O’Connor. Ours is a religious community founded in the United States of America by a priest who dearly loved this country, and served as a Rear Admiral and Chief of Chaplains in the United States Navy. We, too, love our country. We are grateful to be a part of its proud history, for the generosity and valor of so many who call this nation home, and for the possibilities that arise from living authentic freedom within a pluralistic society. Yet now we are faced with a government decision that is not only a grave affront to the religious liberty and rights of conscience of every citizen of the United States, but also an offense to each Sister of Life in a particular way. Every professed member of our community takes a special vow “to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.”

    In response to a call from God and to the sheer beauty and goodness of the gift of life, each Sister dedicates herself to God that all people might come to know the precious gift of his or her life, and that every human life be protected and received as an unrepeatable icon of the living God. To this end, we defend vulnerable human life in the womb from the moment of conception, supporting and upholding mothers in need through emotional, spiritual and material support during and after their pregnancies.  Because the gift of life is intrinsically linked to love, we also affirm and fully support the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church regarding marriage and sexuality. This includes an understanding that sterilization and contraception are gravely against God’s plan for human life and love, and we believe, in the end, are false promises that undermine the peace and freedom in commitment that are fruits of authentic human love.

    Our special fourth vow, made in a solemn and sacred ceremony and binding on us in conscience and in the laws of the Church, is at the heart of our identity as a religious community, and is a profound expression of the religious and spiritual commitment of each of our Sisters. This new rule pays no heed to our right to live according to our vows.  Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act each of us will be required by law to obtain health insurance, or face fines.  Since this HHS mandate will require every insurer to include abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and artificial contraception, we will not be able to obtain any coverage that is free from those “services,” and we will be forced to pay for them directly.  Since we are neither employers, nor employees, of any religious institution, we cannot even take advantage of the “religious exemption” contained in the new regulations or the “compromise.”

    As a result, this mandate would coerce each and every individual Sister of Life to betray her religious vows.  We will be forced to pay for “services” that attack human life and deny the truth and beauty of human sexuality.  This would directly contradict our special religious vow to “to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life,” and go against everything we believe in and have devoted our lives to.  To us, it would be comparable to a law requiring a spouse to violate their marriage vows — an unthinkable intrusion upon a sacred promise.

    This mandate is an offensive and dangerous infringement upon the natural and Constitutional rights of American citizens. The only just solution to this infringement of rights is to rescind the HHS rule.  We call upon members of Congress and the Executive Branch to reverse this decision as soon as possible, and we invite our fellow citizens to join with us in prayer and fasting that our Nation may be protected from this great threat against liberty.

    The statement can be found at the Sisters’ website.  While you’re there, check out the wonderful work being done by the Sisters, and consider — what kind of society have we become, where our government would seek to force such women to be unfaithful to their vows? Can any of us think of a more egregious violation of the fundamental human right to religious freedom?

    An Analogy May Help Us Understand

    Thursday, February 16th, 2012

    It continues to mystify me that some people just don’t seem to understand the idea that religious liberty is directly impacted by the HHS mandate that all insurance plans cover contraceptives (including abortion-causing drugs) and sterilization.

    Let me try an analogy.

    The status quo for health insurance prior to the health care law and the HHS mandate was very much like having an all-volunteer army.  In that situation, if you supported the war, you were free to join and fight, to buy and sell war bonds, and to advocate for the war.  If you didn’t support the war, you could just stand aside and let others serve.  You weren’t forced to advocate for the war, tell anyone about where the recruiting stations were, or pay their expenses when they were flying over to the war zone.  Yes, even those who oppose the war have to pay taxes, but the connection between them and the war expense was so remote as to be negligible.

    In fact, if you joined the military but later developed moral scruples about the war, you could apply for a discharge as a conscientious objector.   Indeed, even during times of national emergency, when there is a military draft, ample accommodation is given to conscientious objectors (e.g., the Amish) who cannot serve in conscience.  Everybody understands that involuntarily enlisting those folks in the military is a terrible violation of their religious liberty.  Of course, nobody is ever required to speak in favor of the war or buy war bonds, and nobody would ever suggest that the government could force them to do so.

    Compare this now to the situation with the HHS mandate for contraception and sterilization coverage.

    Prior to the mandate, it was just like the all-volunteer military.  If you were an employer and you wanted to offer coverage for contraceptives, you were free to do so.  If you were an employee who wanted contraceptives, you could either buy them yourself, work for a company whose insurance plan covered it, or obtain a private insurance policy that covered it.  If you were an insurance company that wanted to provide that coverage, you were free to do so.

    But, if you had objections to contraception, you also had lots of freedom to be a conscientious objector. If you were an employer and you didn’t want to offer coverage, you didn’t have to pay for it.  Your employees could just go out and get them on their own.  You didn’t even have to tell your employees anything about contraceptives, where to get them, etc.  If they wanted to know these things, they can look them up online.  If you were an employee who didn’t want anything to do with contraceptives, you could sign up for a policy that didn’t cover them.  And if you were an insurance company that didn’t want to pay for them, you were free not to do so (in most states).  In fact, even in the states that mandated contraceptive coverage, there were ways that employers and insurance companies could avoid it.

    So, prior to the mandate, there was lots of freedom for everybody to act according to their consciences.

    Under the mandate, though, all this freedom is lost.  Employers will not only have to pay for contraceptives, they will have to tell their employees all about them — in other words, money will be pulled directly from their pockets to pay for this stuff, and words will be pulled out of their mouths to promote it.  Individuals will have to obtain this insurance or have to pay a fine to the government (remember the individual mandate), whether they like it or not — so money will be pulled directly from their pockets to pay for this stuff for others.  Insurance companies will also have to offer it — pay for it and promote it.

    There is virtually no way out of this mandate — the mandate is very, very broad, and the “religious liberty” exemption is very, very narrow.  Very few employers — and no individuals or insurance companies — will be able to claim conscientious objector status.

    Think of how this will play out in the real world.

    Imagine you’re a religious sister, working in a home for unwed mothers.  You firmly believe in the sacredness of human life and oppose contraception.  Prior to the mandate, you could obtain health insurance or not, depending on how you and your religious community felt about the economics of the deal.  If you did get coverage, you could shop around and find a policy that reflected your moral objections to contraception, abortion and sterilization.  But now, under the mandate, you have to get an insurance policy or risk paying a fine to the government.

    Surely, you can see the loss of religious freedom.  This sister will have to pay for and promotes practices that are directly against her religious beliefs.

    Now imagine that you’re a Church. Imagine that you self-insure — in other words, you collect money from employees and put it in an account, pay some more yourself into that account, and you use that money to cover the medical expenses of the employees.  Your own staff sets up this arrangement, issues and signs all the checks, tells the employees what services are covered or not, etc.  Your HR department will tell all your employees all about the health care plan, including what is covered.  Your HR department will issue fancy brochures with the name of your church all over it (and probably the signature of your bishop someplace in there), telling them what is covered.

    I hope that you can see how this mandate will impact the freedom of speech and religion here — not only will the church be forced to directly pay for contraceptives, but church officials (including the bishop, ultimately) will be forced to tell employees that he will pay for their birth control pills or sterilization.  That’s a pretty huge impact on the religious liberty of that Church and it’s employees.

    So, we’re basically in the situation of the conscientious objector/pacifist who not only is being forced to serve in the military, he’s being forced to buy and sell war bonds, write pro-war propaganda, and help other soldiers do what he morally objects to.

    Is there any wonder, then, that the Catholic and Orthodox bishops, leaders of many Jewish and Protestant organizations, members of Congress, state officials, and (at last count) over 200 professors, legal experts, pundits and intellectuals, along with millions of the faithful, have raised their voices in outrage over this mandate?

    A Time for Unity

    Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

    The HHS  mandate has now been confirmed and implemented, in the same precise terms as were announced last year.  Under this regime, all individuals will be required to obtain health insurance that will provide free coverage for sterilization, contraception and some abortion-causing drugs.  The exemption for religious employers continues to be extremely limited, and all we have is the President’s promise that he will provide something more expansive at some undefined point in the future.

    So, where do we go from here?

    It’s very important that we not allow this issue to be understood solely in terms of election year partisan politics.  That’s unavoidable, of course — it is an election year, and it is already an issue in the campaign.  But for us, this is an issue that far transcends the current political climate.  This is an existential question for Catholics.  What does it mean to be a Catholic in America at this point in time?  What are we to do when our government enacts laws that we cannot, in conscience, obey?  How do I remain a good, law-abiding citizen, while also preserving my soul?

    We have to recognize that we have reached a critical point of decision, both as a Church and as individual Catholics.  The political forces out there — the Administration and their opponents, along with all the pundits and spin-doctors — are seeking to divide us into opposing camps, in order to win votes or to advance policy goals.  Our bishops are trying to keep us united in the Body of Christ.

    Listen for a second to what Cardinal George said the other day, during his periodic (ad limina) visit to the Holy Father — an event that enhances the universal unity of the Church.  He said (the emphasis is added by me):

    Even in the midst of this strengthened unity, news of attempts to weaken the unity between the bishops and the faithful have been reported.  This is the first time in the history of the United States that a presidential administration has purposely tried to interfere in the internal working of the Catholic Church, playing one group off against another for political gain.  What isn’t always understood is that the Bishops of the Church make no attempt to speak for all Catholics; they never have.  The Bishops speak for the Catholic and apostolic faith, and those who hold that faith gather around them.  Others disperse. 

    Just so.  Unity with our bishops has always been the hallmark of the Church.  As St. Ignatius of Antioch said in the early second century, “Wherever the bishop is, there let the people be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

    Our bishops are calling us to rally around them, behind the standard of Christ.  It is sad that some people will disperse, and choose to follow a different standard — they will decide instead to accommodate themselves to the spirit of the age, with the Administration’s contraceptive anti-life ideology, or with various political forces.  Just as it was in Gethsemane, so also it is today.  Some will remain faithful, others will not.  Clearly, we need to conduct a prayer campaign to foster unity in the Church and a greater respect for human life (like this one, or this one, for instance).

    All this is not to say, however, that we are to stand by and disengage from the public policy struggle.  Although it appears that the Administration is absolutely intransigent on this issue, there are still two other branches of government.  Court cases have already been filed, and more will follow, to challenge this violation of our religious freedom.  We can’t leave things to the courts, though — we need to work together and redouble our efforts to influence Congress to pass legislation to protect the right of conscience.  Bills like the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012 deserve our support.  We should all be flooding Congress with emails and letters in support of them (an easy way is to go here).

    As laypeople, we also need to remember that this is an election year, and that every member of the House of Representatives, one-third of the Senators, and the next President will all be elected in November.  This issue, as much as any in our lifetimes, should serve to remind us of our duty as Catholic voters.

    Elections matter.