By Msgr. Owen F. Campion - The Priest, 4/1/2012
Seldom has a Catholic Church position seized the headlines as it did in midwinter when the bishops, along with an uncommonly unified coalition of Catholics and Americans of other persuasions, condemned a Department of Health and Human Services ruling about health care plans offered by religious institutions to their employees.
It involved several developments. First, HHS decreed in effect, with President Obama’s approval, that exemptions to its ruling would be few and far between.
Then, the president qualified the ruling. Then, the bishops protested once more. Catholic organizations and politicians added their opinions. On it went, and on it goes, with some happy, and others unhappy.
Like it or not, priests stand in the middle of a situation if for no other reason that Catholics, and others, are asking questions.
If there is a silver lining in this episode, it is that priests in this country have both learning opportunities and teachable moments.
First, the kernel of the bishops’ opposition to the HHS ruling was, and is, that it would violate the concept of freedom of conscience.
Everyone says that separation of church and state is a good thing. Catholic Americans surely say this, and not surprisingly. Because of this constitutional provision, Catholics have survived in this country through a history at times very often marked by hostility to Catholics personally, to the Catholic Church as an institution, and to Catholic values.
Visit our conscience debate page for a collection of related articles!
Catholics, as well as others, may not always understand separation of church and state. “No establishment” means that no government can favor one religion over another. It does not mean that government must scorn an idea that somehow originates in religious thinking, and it absolutely does not means that any citizen is out of place by insisting that his or her religious conviction somehow be reflected in public policy.
It is not about imposing one citizen’s views about religion on anyone else or on society. Rather it is about the individual citizen’s right to reach religious conclusions, to act upon them in personal conduct, and to assert that the society would be better if these conclusions were contained in its policy.
In the first days of the republic, the Founders in many instances came from societies such as Virginia, where the Church of England was established, or Massachusetts, with its official preference for Congregationalist Protestantism. Memories of links between ecclesial bodies and sovereign powers in Europe had not died.
Rarely did memories of these experiences, on either side of the Atlantic, provoke delight.
The bottom line, however, was not that establishing a religion by government act failed to make everyone happy, but rather that such an arrangement negated or frustrated a single individual citizen’s right to believe as he or she chose in the privacy of his or her conscience, and then, and this is critical, a citizen’s full freedom to live and to act according to these beliefs.
Many of the Founders learned their lessons about freedom of conscience by observation, common sense or, for some, such as the Catholic signers of the Constitution, Daniel Carroll and Thomas Fitzsimmons, in the school of hard knocks. (Precisely as Catholics, both Carroll and Fitzsimmons had spent their lives prior to the enactment of the U.S. Constitution somehow, more or less, as second-class members of their communities.)
In addition, many of the Founders, such as Thomas Jefferson himself, who had authored the Declaration of Independence, had read, and found impressive, the great European political theorists of that day, all of whom stressed the primacy of the individual person, indeed in the face of majorities or of governments.
The dignity of a person’s conscience, and of a person’s right to live by the dictates of conscience, critically apply to discussions about the HHS ruling. When a priest insists upon this dignity as a standard in assessing, or preaching about, conditions that now pertain, or whatever may come, he is on as solid a constitutional rock as there can be.
Over the 225 years of the American constitution, and all through the encounters of government with religion, the government, along with the courts, consistently have respected an individual citizen’s right to their personal religious judgments and to behavior based on such judgments.
Look at the case of military chaplains, a major component of the armed services since the administration of James K. Polk.
Seeing that soldiers and sailors go where they are sent, thereby at times being placed in locations where otherwise they would not have available the services offered by the religions of their preference, the government, at public expense, makes arrangements for these services by providing chaplains.
Expressly, courts have ruled that citizens may send their children to religious schools. Acknowledging the gift that religious facilities offer the general well-being and that religious groups operate these facilities out of religious conviction, laws long have exempted churches and church facilities from paying taxes.
Obliquely, and more than just tolerating religion, these exemptions strengthen the ability of citizens to practice by action what they believe.
While freedom of conscience is the ultimate issue in the HHS matter, contraception is capturing much public response to the HHS decision.
Here is another teachable moment for priests — and for the faithful. It especially is so because, to be frank, as every pastor and every confessor well knows, for Catholics contraception has been the elephant in the middle of the room for a long time. Very, very many Catholics of child-bearing potential simply do not practice the Church’s moral teaching regarding artificial contraception.
Quite possibly, many priests shy away from the topic lest they somehow offend the Catholics in the pews of their churches, hesitant about filling people with feelings of guilt, or maybe even driving them away from the Church or from liturgical practice.
Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, for which he took much abuse, but which nonetheless is the magisterial synopsis of Church teaching in this matter, offers a good pastoral approach for catechesis and for counseling. The encyclical is available in many places. Refer to it. Note its overall theology as well as its specific pastoral advice.
However difficult to make the point in this world of sexual license, the Church’s teaching on contraception is not intended to frustrate or to complicate the lives of spouses. Rather, and priests should say this, it is about love, giving of self to a spouse, responsibility as a spouse and parent, and finally and most importantly putting Christian marriage where it should be, in the setting of a way to, indeed a vocation for, sanctity.
This entire matter occurs within a powerful cultural context. Perhaps for 50 years, maybe longer, American society has drifted more and more into secularism. Respect for institutional religion has plunged. Every social indicator points to this philosophical trend. Look at the steep decline of membership in, and influence of, mainline Protestantism.
Look at Catholics. Look at the drop in the numbers of persons in the Catholic Church who attend Mass weekly. Look at the appeal of individualism in Catholic piety and in the processes by which Catholics select between right and wrong.
It all has an insidious effect on American popular opinion — and on American Catholic opinion. More and more, indeed among Catholics, old social attitudes once so basic in the way Americans thought and acted now not only are discarded but resented. Loyalty to these ancient attitudes has become bigotry.
It is an area hard in which to preach and to teach, but priests must preach and teach, and beyond specifics, they must bring bluntly before people the fact that God is supreme in everything.
Back to the HHS ruling: the bishops are to be complimented for their speedy and forthright response, and indeed for their leadership. We priests must say this to people. Without a doubt, the bishops will continue in this direction, speaking for what is right.
Priests must unite behind the bishops at the national level, and in dioceses behind the local bishop. However well intentioned, no Gatling gun response to contested policies will have much constructive effect.
To be confident in themselves and convincing to others, priests will have to know all that is occurring in public affairs and specifically be familiar with the relevant Catholic values. Our Sunday Visitor and other Catholic media, national or local, will provide timely updates. So will most dioceses. So will the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (The USCCB website is www.usccb.org).
Priests will encounter, and perhaps personally be influenced by, a mind-set deeply flowing from an American Catholic DNA formed in those long, hard years of surviving, or attempting to survive, in a culture unfriendly to the institutional Catholic Church and to many of its values. It is the Catholic American hesitancy about voicing a political opinion in what may be considered religious tones and the habit of avoiding any accusation of imposing a particularly Catholic value on others and on public policy.
Beyond constitutional considerations, Catholic Americans long, long ago, and abundantly, bought their way into this society, admittedly Protestant in its beginnings and historically in its culture, willingly dying on battlegrounds from Chapultepec to Chancellorsville to Normandy to Korea to Vietnam to Iraq, cheerfully paying taxes, relentlessly working for the commonweal in a million worthy pursuits, contributing to the uplifting of communities, and studiously obeying laws that, incidentally, many Catholic Americans as loyal public officials wisely over time have assisted in enacting or enforcing.
Catholic charitable, educational and compassionate activities are historic and lustrous to behold. Where would the American population be without them? They did not just come along. They appeared in this country, as they appeared elsewhere throughout Christian history, as manifestations of discipleship, of attempts to live in the example of the merciful and instructive Jesus of Nazareth.
This is the bottom line. Catholic citizens own this society as much as anyone owns it, enjoying every right to take offense when a projected governmental policy conflicts with what they believe, with every right to express aloud their religious attitudes, to act accordingly, and to seat their demands for civil policy in their religious convictions.
This is true separation of church and state. This is no establishment. This is freedom. TP
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.
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