Divine Impatience

Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus. Martin Luther King Jr. writing from Birmingham Jail that justice cannot wait forever. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s contention, in the very face of the Gulag, that one word of truth outweighs the whole world. Wherever oppressive regimes have existed, a single individual standing up for what’s right has often changed the arc of history.

Patience, perseverance, and civility are all indispensable human virtues. But a kind of divine impatience, sense of urgency, and civic activism are also, at times, crucial. This year’s electoral campaign is shaping up to present all of us with the need for heroic action in defense of the first of rights:  religious liberty.

In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court notoriously ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that an until-then unknown constitutional “right to privacy” meant that the sale of contraceptives (to married couples) could be permitted. No one at the time, or until very recently, could have predicted that, in 2012, a secretary of Health and Human Services would rule that, in private insurance plans, even at religious institutions, provision of free contraceptives – including possible abortifacients like Plan B and Ella – would be required.

But that’s what happened on Friday afternoon, the usual time in Washington (the senior editors are gone for the weekend) to put out controversial announcements so as to draw the least media coverage. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (whose Wikipedia page once listed her religion as “heretical Catholic”) added, however, that her department would allow religious institutions, who complained about short Obamacare deadlines, an additional year to figure out how to comply.

Sebelius explained:  “I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.” A cynic might think, instead, that the president and Sebelius don’t much care what religious groups believe, so long as they do what they’re told.

It remains to be seen what Notre Dame and other Catholic institutions that thought they could dialogue with Obama will now have to say. Or William M. Daley, another nominal Catholic, who just resigned from his post as the president’s chief of staff.

As I wrote here two years ago, Daley accused Chicago’s brilliant Cardinal Francis George of “dividing his Church” by merely mentioning in passing the problem of Obama being honored by Our Lady’s university. At least the good cardinal was a knowledgeable Catholic in a position of authority. Will Daley have anything to say about Federal interference in the Catholic Church – and every other religious body that has fundamental moral objections to the administration’s healthcare policies?

         Obama’s “Catholic” brain trust: Salazar, Daley, Vilsack, Sebelius

Don’t hold your breath – or hold on to much hope that the year grace period means anything more than putting off ugly government compulsion until the presidential campaign is decided – one way or another.

Today the thirty-ninth March for Life will take place in Washington. I think I’ve been to almost thirty of them and I’m prepared to say that if you want to see a truly selfless way to Occupy DC, the march is it. No one is there for personal or collective gain. The only benefit to marchers is that they hope someday to live in an America less coarse and more alive to the dignity of all human life.

In many ways, the march is a story of patience and perseverance. And slow success. Public opinion has miraculously moved to the point that a slight but absolute majority of Americans now call themselves pro-life.

But this year something new is in play for everyone in America who knows what is at stake in the pro-life struggle. And it demands urgent action. As the heavy-handed HHS regulations show, unless many of us begin to act – very soon and outside our comfort zone – we will be living under another form of government.

This site is not in the business of partisan politics. If you are a Democrat who thinks the current administration can be made to see reason, by all means, do everything you can towards that end. And good luck with that.

But there are many other things that now need to happen and people all across this country need to act between now and November so that religious liberty in this country is not reduced, as in the former Communist countries, to formal guarantees in theory – that are crudely overruled in practice.

I want to suggest a practical step. Talk to one person, anyone, at work, school, the gym, maybe even in your parish. Ask that person one simple question:  is it fair/right/American to force religious institutions to do things that violate their beliefs? We’re not talking about outlawing human sacrifice. We are talking about unnecessary and offensive regulations about contraception – as if contraception were not already easy to obtain, even for free, at all sorts of outlets all over the country. The overreach here is clear and palpable – and it’s only the beginning.

If you convince that person, ask him to talk to someone else. And so on. These are not easy conversations. But unless a lot of people – and I mean a lot – move out of their comfort zones – energetically and fast this electoral season – we will be living in a different America in just a few years, an America no longer built on the bedrock of limited government and religious freedom.

That’s not a prediction about the future. The change is already upon us.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.