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.