Attacks from within

The Diocese of Peoria, Ill., is the latest to take part in the lawsuits filed against the mandate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requiring Catholic institutions to provide access to birth control, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. 

At last count, 44 Catholic dioceses, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other Church-related institutions have filed suit, everything from the University of Notre Dame to the Catholic Cemeteries Association of Pittsburgh (and Our Sunday Visitor). 

Since no good deed goes unpunished, there has been some pushback. Not just from the usual suspects outside the Catholic community, but from the usual suspects within the Catholic community as well. 

Those within the Catholic community make it clear that their position is that the Church and Church-related agencies should be required to provide birth control, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs to any employee of the Church since the government has mandated that they do so. 

Why? Well, they usually cite a few reasons. First, they state that the lawsuits have embroiled the Church in a highly partisan controversy and created “divisiveness.” They find this rather unseemly, I guess. 

What they don’t mention is that there was no public controversy, no public debate, no partisanship and no “divisiveness” until HHS announced that such a mandate would be forced on Church-related institutions contrary to all previous federal practice. 

The Church was not the source of this dispute. The dispute resulted directly from government action imposed on the Church, and support for the Church’s position has been bipartisan. 

Another argument is that the lawsuits against the HHS mandate are an attack on an important legislative effort to provide universal health care, the Affordable Health Care Act. 

This is flat-out wrong. The lawsuits concern one segment of one part of one bureaucratic application of the Affordable Health Care Act. That’s it. 

Another argument from certain Catholic corners states that the Church is attempting to use economic coercion to impose its teachings on its employees. 

Let’s be blunt, if the lawsuits are over economic coercion, it is pretty weak economic coercion. Birth control devices cost less than a can of tennis balls or a head of lettuce. If it’s a squeeze, it’s a lousy one. 

But the real fact is that like every institution the Church has the right to establish certain conditions of employment in keeping with its mission and purpose. 

It has long been understood that the Church is not required to provide access to actions or behavior that violate its sacred beliefs. That does not limit those who wish to do so; it simply means that the government cannot force the Church to subsidize it. 

Perhaps the most troubling argument is the claim that nothing in the mandate impairs the right and ability of the Church to convey its teachings. 

The problem with that is simple but vital. If we can’t live out what we believe within our own ministries, what are we and what is our witness teaching? Our service is a witness of faith that reaches out to the heart, spirit and soul, not just an exercise in secular do-good. Which is why secular do-good so often fails. 

The HHS mandate blocks the Church’s right to live out our teachings within our own institutions and in how we carry out our missions and ministries. It is an unprecedented government intrusion into the life and conscience of the Church. 

The Church cannot be forced by the government to violate its own sacred beliefs. Even Catholics should agree on that. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.