The Catholic Church in the United States is in the midst of a historic conflict that it did not initiate, that it cannot avoid, and that — if lost — may have serious implications for the ability of all churches to define themselves and to live their faith in the public square.
There have been a growing number of assaults on religious liberty at both the federal and the state level, but none may be more severe nor have a broader impact than regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services forcing Catholic organizations to provide and facilitate abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization for their employees. It did so by identifying these as “preventive services” under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and then narrowly defining what would constitute a religious employer who could seek an exemption.
According to the government, a religious employer could only qualify for an exemption if:
1. The inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the organization.
2. The organization primarily employs persons who share the religious tenets of the organization.
3. The organization primarily serves persons who share the religious tenets of the organization.
4. The organization is a certain type of nonprofit organization.
In a host of Catholic apostolates, from health care and charity to higher education and publishing, not all of these criteria are likely to be met, yet all of these apostolates are most surely doing the work of the Gospel — employing non-Catholics as well as Catholics, serving non-Catholics as well as Catholics, practicing works of mercy even if no religious tract is exchanged or evangelizing message uttered.
These criteria mean that the government now determines whether Catholic organizations are sufficiently religious, using criteria that are not consistent with the Catholic faith.
Although the president had promised — in his 2009 speech at Notre Dame and elsewhere — that he would respect freedom of religious conscience in the health care debate, these regulations are an enormous violation of religious liberty, forcing Catholic organizations to fund medical procedures and drugs that the Church teaches are morally wrong.
A so-called accommodation announced last February would ostensibly make the insurance companies used by religious organizations provide “contraceptive care free of charge.” It is unclear to what extent this accommodation in fact changes the regulations. Furthermore, even assuming that the insurance companies do provide such services “free of charge,” this accommodation does nothing to relieve the burden of all those Catholic organizations — including Our Sunday Visitor — that are self-insured.
At this point, sincere and good faith efforts by the U.S. bishops to resolve this issue with the White House have failed. Legislative efforts to grant relief have failed as well. Nonprofit companies such as Our Sunday Visitor — as well as medical systems, charitable organizations, universities and more — have no recourse but to take their case to the courts before the die is cast and we lose all opportunity to appeal.
For this reason, on May 21, 2012, Our Sunday Visitor joined with 42 other Catholic dioceses and organizations in suing the federal government to nullify the HHS preventive care mandate and declare it unconstitutional.
It seems to us hardly a coincidence that this suit is taking place in our centennial year. Founded 100 years ago by then-Father John Noll, Our Sunday Visitor from its beginning sought to inform Catholics about the issues of the day, form them in the Faith, and defend that Faith from attack. It was Father John Noll who stood up to those who attacked Catholic immigrants as un-American and seditious. It was Father John Noll who faced down false preachers who spread slanders about the Church. It was Father John Noll who resisted the power of the Ku Klux Klan when it was such a powerful political force. And it is in his courageous spirit that we invoke as we engage in this great struggle today.
We know that many Americans — and even many Catholics — are confused about this debate. Politicians and elements of the news media have sought to make it a war against women or contraception, and they have portrayed the Church as seeking to impose its values on others or as being covertly political.
We also acknowledge that many Catholics do not understand the reasons for the Church’s moral opposition to contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. This lack of understanding points to a significant catechetical need that the Church should address internally.
We reiterate, however, that this is not about the legality of such practices in society, nor is it about how many Catholics understand the Church’s position. It is about the Church’s right to practice what it preaches.
In fact, this lawsuit is about fundamental challenges to the First Amendment right to religious liberty: the government determining what constitutes a sufficiently Catholic organization and the government imposing on such an organization a requirement that it provide and facilitate services that the Church teaches are immoral.
In opposing the HHS regulations, the Church is also defending the religious liberty of all believers guaranteed to us in the Constitution. Even those who may not be inclined to agree with the Church’s position on issues like contraception and sterilization recognize that once this precedent has been set, once the guarantee of religious liberty has been breached, other governments and other elected officials will find it much easier to impose their standards and their priorities on our Church or others.
Today, Our Sunday Visitor stands proudly with our fellow Catholic apostolates and with our bishops in resisting this challenge. We ask all of our readers to stand with us — in charity, praying first and foremost for conversions of heart; in civility, arguing the facts of this case without recourse to bitter partisanship or political rhetoric; and in solidarity, knowing that whatever sacrifices we bear and whatever challenges we endure, we are only doing what is our responsibility as American citizens practicing our faith in the public square.
For more information about this lawsuit, go to www.osv.com/TodaysIssues/ReligiousLiberty.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.