Standing Fast on Conscience This Lent

An important meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ administrative committee is underway this week, and the gathering should be an occasion of concerted prayer for all who care about the future of religious liberty, as well as Catholic charity in the United States. Adding one more intention to the Lenten period should not create too large a burden for an issue of such great moment.

Critics of the Church’s strong stance against President Obama’s preventive services mandate have intensified their pressure with bits of semi-personal nastiness, as the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne did here in a column taunting the U.S. hierarchy as fresh recruits to the Tea Party.  

The preventive services mandate and its requirement that Catholic institutions guarantee their employees “free” coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraceptives is only the latest item in a logical progression. In 2006, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts drove Catholic Charities out of the adoption field with a new mandate that it offer child placements with homosexual couples. 

Just four years later, the District of Columbia took the same step, while heaping additional burning coals on the Church by threatening to deny it eligibility for public grants for its services to the homeless and others in need, because the Church refused to provide marriage benefits to same-sex couples. 

Rather than acquiesce in the violation of its conscience over the nature of marriage, the Church dropped health benefits for spouses of future employees. Illinois soon chimed in with similar adverse action against Catholic adoption agencies.

Then in 2011 the Obama Administration canceled a national grant to the Church for its work assisting with the rescue of trafficked women. Despite the fact that the Church’s application to continue assisting victims of trafficking scored much higher than those of competing agencies, Kathleen Sebelius’s Department of Health and Human Services imposed a new requirement, not found in the underlying law, that grantees provide trafficked women with “access” to all legal reproductive health services (e.g., abortion and birth control).

With each of these steps, the Obama Administration and its allies executed maneuvers that collapsed the space available to Catholic institutions to “be Catholic,” even outside the arena of government grants and contracts. The terms of state licensure, as in Massachusetts, have been enough for the state, through the sweeping application of sexual orientation non-discrimination laws, to destroy Catholic involvement in the social services field.

Cardinal Dolan: Who’ll define the faith?

As aggressive as these measures against the Catholic Church’s self-understanding have been, they pale against the violations committed now in the name of the ambiguous clauses of the 2010 health care reform law. Based on a vague “prevention” amendment adopted in committee and neither debated nor voted upon in a 2,500-page bill, Obama and HHS reinvented pregnancy as a disease, created a religious exemption so narrow it has no precedent in American law, and rebuffed all attempts to correct the problem by charging that the Church was now suddenly embarked on a “war on women.”

For all of these reasons, it should be clear by now that the Church’s entire framework of corporal works of mercy is at risk, and that this is no side-effect of new social mores but an intentional by-product of policies and laws that seek hegemony over the very definitions of life, marriage, health care for women, and now even charity. 

Yet another spurious “accommodation” from the Obama Administration, should one be issued (with, no doubt, a post-election completion date), should not mask the fact that, by its very design, the 2010 health reform law is an affront to both the First Amendment and core Catholic social principles.

HHS states that Catholic entities are not actually implicated in subsidizing immoral practices because, after all, contraception saves insurers and insured parties’ money. HHS would have us believe the only issue here is efficiency not constitutional liberty. That brute calculation is offensive to religious sensibilities in its own right, but note how it could be applied as precedent for the next mandate to cover abortion of the disabled, drugs to euthanize the sick, or assisted suicide. 

In these latter instances, after all, real illnesses are involved. Would this or a future administration never insist that Catholic universities, hospitals and soup kitchens underwrite their employees’ abortions or death pills? If that seems incredible, how incredible is it that the Church now faces such scorn from an administration policy establishing the principle that Catholics may not operate their institutions in conformity with their understanding of the moral law?  

The HHS rule, as Cardinal Timothy Dolan noted in his March 2 letter, “seeks to define what constitutes church ministry and how it can be exercised.” He who defines, he who funds, controls.

That is why this is a defining moment in the pews as well. We must stand for continued religious freedom on behalf of Catholic institutions as well as each person of faith, regardless of that person’s place of employment.  We must also defend the constitutional protection of religious freedom in all matters involving health care decisions, from conception to natural death.  We must press for the reversal of all policies that hamper the Church’s capacity for works of service in health care in accord with Catholic social teaching. 

To accomplish these goals is a larger task than merely reversing the preventive services mandate, but that reversal must come. We also must reset our focus to promote future changes in health policy that will achieve the goals of preserving and expanding access to health care and social services while protecting religious freedom and conscience.

Chuck Donovan is the president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.