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February 16, 2012
Caritas-Agape and the Exercise of Religion
By Msgr. Richard Antall *

By Msgr. Richard Antall *

In Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, the Holy Father affirmed this very important truth of the Church’s essence: “The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia) and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia)." (25.a)

Organized charitable activity is thus “a part of (the Church’s) nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.” The pope is saying that charitable activity is not optional but actually a necessary expression of our religion. In the encyclical he shows this to be true from the very beginning of the Church, with the apostolic institution of deacons. Pope Benedict mentions that the apostate emperor Julian, who persecuted the Church, recommended to the pagan priesthoods to imitate the Christians in their works of charity. He saw the organized activity of charity as an appealing aspect of the Christian religion and wished that polytheistic pagans could have something similar.

Why am I talking about this? Because I see this as a dimension of the current debate about the Health and Human Services ukase that Catholic institutions will have to pay for contraception, abortive medicines and sterilizations or be heavily fined for not doing so. The Obama administration pretends that there is an intrinsic right of every woman (and I suppose man) not only to contraception, abortifacient drugs and sterilization procedures (which could be vasectomies) but also the right that his or her employer pay for such medicines and procedures. It is not just freedom to choose some morally questionable options but freedom from having to pay for them, too.

This debate question, like so many others, depends somewhat on how it is framed. Look at the issue from the Church’s point of view. She feels that organized charitable activity is part of her essence. This activity is so large that it involves all sorts of people in schools and hospitals throughout the country. Now the government is saying that the Church cannot have these organized works of charity without participating in what church doctrine does not admit as moral options. You can do these works of charity, says the government, but only if you accept that you must pay so that employees can use abortifacients. This is called material cooperation in evil.

The bishops naturally reject the pretensions of the federal government to insist that workers, who very knowingly are employed in Church institutions, have some sort of trump card over their employer’s moral principles. Even workers who would never use such things must be covered by insurance so that they are also participating in this material cooperation. The “accommodation” recently proposed by the president theoretically shifts the burden to the insurance companies. As if the insurance companies will willingly assume costs without including them in the bills to clients? Obviously, the costs would be absorbed by the entire bill. This does not solve the question of cooperation in evil at all. It is shell game but the Church institution will have to pay for the whole game.

Will the government allow the Church to benefit society by means of her institutions without forcing her to subsidize what she regards as immoral? That is the question here and that is why the bishops are invoking the First Amendment. The free exercise of religion is at stake if Church institutions must be involved in paying for what contradicts her moral teaching. By disrespecting this moral issue, the government is showing both a lack of moral discernment (about the conscientious position of the Church) and a disregard of the way Church institutions reflect what the Church believes.

Some people have tried to make this an issue about contraception and pull out opinion polls. The ideology of “birth control” raised its ugly head. One poll laughably says that 98 percent of all Catholic women use artificial contraception. Even post-menopausal women? Then there was care taken to avoid admitting that abortifacients were on the list for the free meds. Perhaps the masterminds behind this are afraid people will say that bureaucrats at Health and Human Services overreach themselves with the abortifacients. But this is not an issue of polls or numbers. It is about the freedom of the Church to exercise charity which is an essential part of her nature.

And what does this promise for the future? If employees must have the Church institution pay for abortifacients, can these same institutions, like Catholic hospitals, refuse to provide them to clients? Communist countries seized Church institutions in many countries upon reaching power. Now the government need not bother about armed guards at the doors, etc. All that is required is that what those institutions do be under the control of the government “regulations”. That takes away the taxing problems of administration and only involves making irrelevant the religious motivation that built the schools and hospitals in the first place. This would be no great loss to the ideologues of the sexual revolution. If Catholics lose this particular battle about insurance, they will be stripped of real control of the institutions that exist under Church auspices.

Will the Church be able to continue her organized works of charity? That is the question before the country.

Msgr. Richard Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in Cleveland, Ohio. For 20 years he served as a missionary in El Salvador and as Moderator of the Curia for Archdiocese of San Salvador. He is the author of theological reflections rooted in his work among the poor, “The Way of Compassion,” “Witnesses to Calvary,” and “Jesus Has a Question for You,” all published by Our Sunday Visitor.
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