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May 18, 2012
In Defense of Conscience and Civility
By Carl Anderson *

By Carl Anderson *

For months America’s bishops have attempted to work with the current Administration to ensure adequate First Amendment religious freedom protection of religious organizations. They have been rebuffed each time, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops formally responded to proposed rules in the HHS mandate on May 15.

Our bishops’ response shows how easy it would be for the administration to make real progress on this issue, and how the federal regulations being implemented conflict with the cherished history of First Amendment liberty.
The brief states: “On balance, while the [proposed regulation] may create an appearance of moderation and compromise, it does not actually offer any change in the Administration’s earlier stated positions on mandated contraceptive coverage, which are now enshrined in a final rule.”

It continues: “The simplest and best solution to the various problems described above is the one the Administration so far has declined to adopt: to rescind the mandate. Failing this, the Administration should provide an exemption that protects all stakeholders with a religious or moral objection, in keeping with the consistent language and longstanding tradition of federal conscience protection law.”

Resolving this issue in keeping with the First Amendment is critical to the American way of life, and our bishops have shown excellent leadership in defending our constitutional rights.

The bishops’ document does an excellent job of laying out the case and does so in a professional and compelling way.

As we enter this election year, we can only imagine that debate over this issue will intensify. And when issues are intensely debated in election years, there is often a temptation to raise the intensity of the rhetoric.

We know we are morally and constitutionally correct. And that is all the more reason why it is important for Catholics committed to protecting our constitutional rights to lead by example in their rhetoric and actions. We must be firm, but not shrill. We must behave with respect, even if – and especially if – our federal government does not.

Last year the Secretary of Health and Human Services told a NARAL luncheon, “We are in a war.” I sincerely hope we can put away such partisan rhetoric. The fact is we are not in a war. Such rhetoric makes no sense in the United States where the government and citizens of the country alike work out their differences in courts and elections.

We do not need a government that sees itself at “war” with its own citizens. But if they do, we should take the highroad none the less and respond with love, respect, working through the courts and electoral process to secure our rights.

Let us recall that Christ has commanded us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. It is precisely this commandment that makes the HHS mandate’s conscience exemption untenable. As Christians, we cannot focus only within our own religion. We must reach out in love even to those who scorn us.
We should also recall Christ’s words: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

We are approaching the national Fortnight of Prayer, called for by our bishops. It begins on the vigil of the Feast Day of St. Thomas More, and we should take a lesson from him. Awaiting execution in the Tower of London, St. Thomas More wrote a prayer which we have included in our Knights of Columbus prayer book.
It reads: “Almighty God, have mercy …on all that bear me evil will, And would me harm, And their faults and mine together… vouchsafe to amend and redress, Make us saved souls in heaven together, Where we may ever live and love together with Thee and Thy blessed saints….” Amen.

During the Fortnight of Prayer let us make this prayer too our own.
And as we pray that prayer, let us remember and be good examples of the words of Robert F. Kennedy, who said this when America lost the great Civil Rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.”

Our greatness as a nation is that we believe in “liberty and justice for all.” Our greatness as a nation is that our government is limited, not limitless. Our greatness as a nation is that we solve our problems through a legal and political process that works.

Today many things may seem to divide us, but our greatness as a nation is in our unity, and that unity has been preserved in large measure because of the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. For this reason, this issue should not only be important to every Catholic, but to every freedom loving American.

Carl Anderson is the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus and a New York Times bestselling author. His most recent book is Beyond a House Divided: The Moral Consensus Ignored by Washington, Wall Street and the Media.
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