ESF President Speaks Truth About HHS Mandate

August 1st, 2012 3 Comments

It Is About Contraception!


For several months now I have been stewing about President Obama’s HHS mandate, an unprecedented attack on the Catholic Church that today takes effect. Not just stewing about the attack itself, which after all has as its chief architects in enemies of the Church ab extra, something you expect if you live long enough. No, most of my stewing has been about the response to this attack on the part of the household of faith (cf. Gal. 6:10) generally, and particularly on the part of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Nor have I been alone in this, as the excellent pieces written by Professors Janet Smith and Peter Colosi suggest.[i]


The requirement that all businesses provide, at cost to themselves, free insurance coverage for contraceptives, sterilization, and even abortion, and without any conscience exemptions for individuals of faith nor for religious institutions is, it is true, clearly and flagrantly an attack on religious liberty.  Religious institutions have the right to articulate and hold to their own, freely chosen, faith-based concept of their own mission and their very own identity, provided none of this violates the authentic common good.  Therefore, the USCCB has rightly identified the bald attack on religious liberty when characterizing the anti-religious violations represented by the HHS mandate, since the mandate requires faith-based institutions to leave their faith at the door, so to speak, when they conduct a public service or business.


All so far so good, but while rightly resisting the violation of religious liberty, inherent in the HHS mandate, the USCCB has deliberately chosen to ignore the moral and ideological attack on the Church, society, and people of faith represented by contraception, sterilization, and abortion themselves –and not just ignore it, but even push it out of view entirely, saying over and over that “this fight is not about contraception.”


Not about contraception? Really? Now I have a major problem with this. And here I take issue not so much with those ab extra, but ab intra, i.e., those shaping policies from inside the Church. On its face, it is a choice to avoid confronting the ecclesiastical and pastoral version of the proverbial ten thousand pound gorilla.  That is, an enormous and to-date ongoing (40 years and counting) moral failure – the widespread and uncorrected use and even promotion of contraception and sterilization by Catholics, both individually, professionally, and publicly, while the American Church has remained largely and consistently silent.


But what, it may be asked, is the main purpose of religious liberty itself if not the actual exercise of religion, meaning authentic religion? Why defend religious liberty at all if we don’t defend what that gift aims at? And why defend at all the prerogative of inherently religious institutions to operate freely, if not for the purpose of not only remaining free, but also of actually carrying out the religious nature of their mission? The calculation to emphasize only the religious freedom aspect without considering the immorality of contraception promotion creates the impression, however unjustified, that we are only concerned with the protection of our own institutional prerogatives, or perhaps our own private right to worship; or maybe we appear to be trying to preserve our social mission – our service to the poorest of the poor and suffering – something laudable in itself but incomplete and inadequate, if it stands alone and without reference to the saving moral gospel.


No, as Pope Benedict pointed out vividly in an address to U. S. Bishops 1/19/2012, entitled “A Convincing Public Witness,” any attack on religious liberty is first and foremost an attack on God’s own rights and only secondarily on those of man. Religion exists first for the purpose of giving God His due—an obligation of man. So, the fundamental injustice of attacks on religious liberty, at levels both individual and institutional, consists neither in the loss of man’s private right to worship freely, in order to satisfy himself, nor in the loss of institutional prerogatives strictly speaking, but rather in the injustice consisting of the elimination of what rightfully and justly belongs to God. This is the public acknowledgment of, and convincing (and convinced) witness to, His goodness, the kind of witness that has the power to convince others too. That is why, instead of jumping immediately to the issue of “conscience protection,” in his address, or immediately defending the rights of our ecclesial institutions to flourish, Benedict first mentioned the right to “a convincing public witness.”


Several other considerations are noteworthy: do we care more about social justice, which concerns alleviating man’s needs, than the rights of God? Consider whether, if instead of telling us we had to provide contraceptive coverage, Obama had instead told us that we had to give up our mission to the poor, an action which now was to be done exclusively by the government.  Would the USCCB have publicly denied that this was a fight about the mission to the poor, insisting instead that this was strictly an issue of religious liberty? Will some of our public institutions engage in the chicanery of justifying obedience to the mandate by the rationalization that we were forced to do so in order to keep intact our social justice mission?


Further, what about the fact that the provision of contraceptives is immoral and harmful in and of itself, and also contrary to the benefit of marriage, family, and the common good—and not just trivially so, but massively so.  What about the convincing “public witness?” Have we been called out to a public fight about what is necessary for the health and wellbeing of women, and failed to answer the bell, preferring to dispute about the parliamentary appropriateness of the challenge? Where I’m from, this is called “running from a fight.” Practically speaking, will there ever be a better time to engage the public in a dialogue about this deeply important moral and anthropological truth, one so necessary for the common good? How convincing is our public witness when practically the whole world already knows that contraception is contrary to our faith, and yet the first moment the government tries to force it down our institutional throats, we insist the fight isn’t about that?


When this president was elected it was exactly 40 years from the moment of the American Church’s clear-cut rejection of Humanae Vitae. We also had the warning from Pope Paul VI, in that document, to the effect that governments would be likely to impose, as solutions (coercively) and at the level of society, precisely the same contraceptive solutions thought to be authentically helpful at the level of marital couples.


Are we at the end of a biblical 40 year period of divine testing and probing before a just local judgment takes place, as with the desert Israelites of old? Have we, as in the days of the prophet Daniel, been tried in the balance and found wanting? Is the current government oppression the divinely appointed castigator of the American Church, designed to bring us to our knees as with the Assyrians or Babylonians? Or is God waiting for the American Church to finally exercise real faith and publicly defend, under duress, the true teaching about contraception?


Are we being given one last chance?



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