by Greg Erlandson
See sample pamphlet (PDF)
Order for your parish
“It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness.” — Pope Benedict XVI
It is a great privilege for Catholic Americans — and one not shared by Catholics in many other parts of the world — to live in a country that places freedom of religion first in its Bill of Rights, and whose Founding Fathers stressed the importance of freedom of conscience.
Privilege bears with it a responsibility, on behalf of all believers and on behalf of future generations, to protect and defend this religious liberty from being weakened or undermined.
Each one of these efforts has a direct impact on the ability of Catholic organizations and individuals to live the Gospel in the public square in accordance with their faith, and most of them have received little to no coverage in the mainstream media. A great deal of attention, however, is being given to efforts by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to force Catholic organizations and companies to provide contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs to their employees. These health-plan regulations would be the first ever attempt by the government to require religious believers to purchase a product or service that runs counter to the moral teachings of their faith.
New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, as head of the U.S. bishops’ conference, rightly condemned these proposed regulations: “To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their health care is literally unconscionable.”
In other instances, such as with adoption and foster-care services, the Church has had to shut down its agencies rather than comply with legal requirements that contradict its teachings and values. In the case of health insurance, however, Catholic organizations and companies are given no choice other than to end all health insurance for its employees, a dramatic act that would itself violate the Church’s long-standing support of a right to health care.
While parishes themselves would be exempt from such a requirement, Catholic organizations such as hospitals, grade schools, universities, and aid organizations would still be forced to offer access to contraception and other “reproductive services” (even if the cost would somehow be borne by the insurance company itself). For many other Catholic nonprofit organizations, as well as companies owned by Catholics, there would be no exception for any reason, nor are the companies and organizations that are self-insured — which make up the vast majority — protected from this immoral mandate.
Is this just a Catholic problem?
For the Catholic Church, the recent HHS regulations have united Catholics of all political persuasions — liberal and conservative.
But many other religious leaders — Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim — have spoken out in defense of religious liberty and have protested governmental efforts to force any group to adopt policies or take actions that are contrary to its teachings and beliefs. The mandate equally has drawn editorial fire from such publications as The Washington Post and USA Today, which are sensitive to the traditionally liberal concerns of civil liberties and conscience rights these regulations raise.
All are mindful of their responsibility as American citizens to defend religious liberty, and all are no doubt mindful of the prophetic warning of German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller that a violation of the rights of one group of society ultimately violates the rights of all. When “they came for the Jews,” he wrote, “I was not a Jew, so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Is this a liberty problem or a contraception problem?
The issue of grave concern to believers is religious liberty. Because of all the attention focused on the HHS regulations, however, many Americans, and even some Catholics, may be wondering what the connection is between artificial contraception and religious liberty. They read statistics about how many Catholics might be using some form of artificial birth control. They hear the government claim that contraception is now a basic right as a preventive service.
First, the concerns of religious liberty transcend the immediate controversy over the funding of contraceptives. There are many disparate threats that impact Catholic and religious organizations.
Second, contraception is an issue only because the regulations would force Catholic organizations and individuals to violate their own beliefs and the teachings of their Church. This is a religious liberty issue first and foremost. That fact is underscored by the other churches that do not share the Catholic Church’s opposition to artificial contraception but nonetheless have joined to resist this government mandate.
To explain the position of religious believers, one must know a bit about what religious liberty means for Americans.
When the framers of the U.S. Constitution adopted the Bill of Rights, they sought to protect a series of rights not until then explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution. The very first of these rights is freedom of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The founders of our country were insistent that the government should never establish an official religion, as was the case in many European countries. In addition, they had the highest regard for freedom of conscience.
Our first president, George Washington, said, “The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is my wish and desire, that the laws may always be extensively accommodated to them.”
James Madison wrote, “the religion … of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”
Many accommodations have been made over time for the sensibilities of various religious groups, from refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance to refusal to serve in the military. Even the willingness of the government to provide chaplains to the military is such an accommodation.
For the state to require of the Church something that is explicitly forbidden by the Church has always been seen as an extraordinary burden, and churches and civil libertarians have resisted such interference whenever it occurred.
What if there are those who don’t agree?
Many Americans who may have difficulties understanding the Church’s teaching on topics like contraception or same-sex marriage recognize also that the government has no right to tell the Church what to believe or what to practice. Likewise, Catholic men and women — be they small business owners or school presidents — should not be forced by the government to violate the teachings of their Church in order to comply with the law.
“We are blessed to live in a nation that counts freedom of conscience and free exercise of religion among its most fundamental principles, thereby ensuring that all people of good will may hold and practice their beliefs according to the dictates of their consciences.” The speaker of those words was Barack Obama. It was also President Obama who said in his Nobel Lecture: “We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard.”
What can I do?
Threats against religious liberty ultimately threaten the rights of all. To resist such threats is not to become “partisan” or “ideological,” but to assert one’s rights as a citizen and as a believer, to defend a cherished principle both for us and for future generations.
It is critically important that Catholics, who comprise one-quarter of this nation’s population, make their voices heard so that Catholic organizations, companies and individuals do not suffer further religious freedom restrictions. Here are four action steps that every parish and every Catholic can do:
Like our forbearers, many of whom fled persecution for the liberties promised by our country, we all must defend not only the rights of our own Church, but the rights of all believers and all creeds. In a world that even today sees religious persecution in many lands and under many guises, America must continue to be an example to all of what the free exercise of religion and freedom of conscience truly mean.
In recent months, the bishops of the United States, joined by members of other faiths, have expressed alarm about new threats to religious liberty at both the federal and the state level. Examples they have cited include:
Why does the Church feel strongly about religious liberty in health care?
The Church has long opposed the use of artificial contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs (called abortifacients). On this it has been “clear, consistent, and public.” Even those who disagree with it understand that it is based on a long-held and carefully thought out view of human love that deserves a hearing in the public square — especially one that is so torn by infidelity, sexual abuse, objectification of women, and divorce.
“The Church cannot, even reluctantly, provide information, make arrangements for, facilitate, counsel, or instruct people on how to obtain these immoral procedures. To do so would be to participate in the violation of the moral law and thus to act against conscience,” wrote Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., in explaining the Church’s opposition.
Seek First the Kingdom: Challenging the Culture by Living Our Faith. Cardinal Donald Wuerl. (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012).
How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot Button Issues. Austen Ivereigh. (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012).
Catechism of the Catholic Church
How to Form Your Catholic Conscience (pamphlet). Robert Fastiggi, Ph.D. (Our Sunday Visitor, 2005).
Pray for Our Nation Prayer Card (Our Sunday Visitor).
Sex and Contraception (pamphlet). Janet E. Smith, Ph.D. (Our Sunday Visitor, 2007).
What Catholics Need to Know about Health Care Reform (pamphlet). Cardinal Donald Wuerl. (Our Sunday Visitor).
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Conscience Protection” www.usccb.org/conscience
“Religious Liberty” www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/
By Greg Erlandson.
Copyright © by Our Sunday Visitor.
Permission to reprint required from publisher.
Inventory No. P1346
Nihil Obstat: Rev. Michael Heintz, Censor Librorum, Imprimatur: Kevin C. Rhoades, Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend The Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur are official declarations that a book or pamphlet is free of doctrinal or moral error. No implication is contained therein that those who have granted the Nihil Obstat or Imprimatur agree with the contents, opinions, or statements expressed.
For more information and to order, click here.
Catholic Faith Resources | For Catholic Parishes | Order OSV Products | RSS | Advertise | About Us | Contact Us | Jobs