The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has long championed universal access to health care. Nonetheless, it continues to voice moral concerns about the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act because it forces opponents of abortion-related services to pay for them. The mandate, advertised as ‘preventative health’ for women is a misnomer. A few years ago, President Obama assured Cardinal Dolan that religious concerns would be protected in the crafting of the ACA.
According to Dr. John Brehany, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association, the Obama administration has given every indication that it is hostile to religious freedom, to conscience rights, and to any religious claims of judgment that would refuse or decline to provide reproductive services like abortifacients.
The Hobby Lobby Case and Beyond
Last week’s Supreme Court’s ruling decided in favor of religious freedom. At issue for Hobby Lobby, a for-profit organization with Christian principles, was and is in opposition to provide four contraceptives that act as abortifacients as well. The Court said that the company should not be coerced into offering them to their employees; sixteen other contraceptives are still available in their health package. The Hobby Lobby craft chain employs 13,000 workers who are paid at least $15.00 an hour, well above the minimum wage; they have Sundays off. The company donates 10 percent of its profits to charity.
A few days later, an unsigned order by the Court said that Christian Wheaton College need not comply with the ACA mandate. Moreover, it would not be forced to sign a form deputizing a third party to provide these services in its name because it refuses to be complicit in a decision which opposes its religious principles. The fate of non-profit Catholic organizations will be decided next year. In all, there are about one hundred religious organizations opposed to governmental coercion of the contraceptive mandate.
Hobby Lobby has become a public enemy for liberals who have dubbed this decision “a war on women,” limiting Americans’ right to birth control, and the beginning of the end of health benefits for women. The editorial of The Wall Street Journal states that “judging by the liberal reaction, you would think the Supreme Court majority that struck down part of the ObamaCare’s birth control mandate on Monday has suddenly imposed Shariah law.” It may boil down to this question: Why should religious institutions, Catholic or otherwise, be forced to pay for the sexual activity of others when this activity is morally opposed by the institutions? This is a case of religious freedom versus abortion. For the government, abortion trumps religious freedom.
Religious organizations serving the common good in a pluralistic society are the very ones being vilified. Does the government really want to punish these groups and limit religious freedom to the home or place of worship? If so, there will be fewer and fewer nation-wide charities whose outreach for the common good is limitless.
The Religion Clause of the First Amendment
Religious freedom is freedom from coercion, the absence of constraints and restraints on individuals in their efforts to pursue freely the positive values of religion. In this sense, the first colonists were united in their determination to worship freely and without constraints or restraints from the governments they left behind. Religious freedom is the recognition of the inviolability of the human person, individually and in association with others, in what concerns religious belief and action. The political or civil freedoms of the First Amendment, unlike later freedoms or rights, were assurance against coercive action ((Francis Canavan, S.J., “Religious Freedom: John Courtney Murray, S.J. and Vatican II”).
The establishment clause of the First Amendment has two parts: the government (a) shall make no law establishing a religion, and the government (b) shall not prohibit the free exercise thereof. This clause is an article of peace in a pluralistic society. What can be further stated about the First Amendment?
1. America has proved by experience that political unity and stability are possible without uniformity of religious belief and practice, without the necessity of any governmental restriction on any religion.
2. In areas allotted to the government, it is easier to differ without civil strife when religious differences are excluded.
3. The Catholic Church is better off when left alone to carry out its identity and its mission. Why so? Because religious freedom is guaranteed not only to individual Catholics but to the Church as an organized society with its own law and jurisdiction. “This independent authority has been the essential element of freedom in the political tradition of the Christian West” (Canavan).
New York Times, July 3, 2014
On July 3, following the Hobby Lobby decision, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (RFRF) took out a full-page ad in the New York Times (A13) excoriating the five members of the Supreme Court for their decision in the case. Part of the ad reads as follows:
“Dogma Should Not Trump Our Civil Liberties.
All-Male, All-Roman Catholic Majority on Supreme Court
Puts Religious Wrongs Over Women’s Rights”
“Are you dismayed and alarmed by the Supreme Court’s June 30 Hobby Lobby ruling? The Supreme Court’s ultra-conservative, Roman Catholic majority—Justice Roberts, Scalia, Alito, Kennedy, and Thomas—has sided with zealous fundamentalist who equate contraception with abortion. The court has granted employers with ‘sincere’ religious objections the right to deny women employees coverage for birth control. This ruling marks a turning point in the struggle to uphold civil liberties in the face of relentless attacks by the Religious Right.” . . .
Congress must repeal RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act]. Employers should have no right to impose their religious beliefs upon workers. Fight back! Won’t you join FFRF in waking up America to the growing dangers of theocracy?”
The ad seeks donations from the readership.
Anti-Catholicism in the United States
Anti-Catholicism, the last acceptable prejudice in the United States, has a long history, but a new anti-Catholicism has taken on a blatant and brazen coercion by the government in the name of freedom. This appears as the virtuous counterpart of hatred of the Catholic Church because of its unyielding defense of human life, marriage, and the family.
“The freedom of the Church is a pregnant phrase,” writes Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J. His thoughts as articulated in We Hold These Truths mean, in the first place, the freedom of the Church as a spiritual authority to carry out her divine commission. But, secondly, it means the freedom of the Church as the Christian people to live within her fold an integral supernatural life, a life with inherent super-political dignity that transcends the goals and power of the state.
The Church claims immunity from subordination to the state and its temporal ends. The chief example of this is matters dealing with the dignity of the whole person, marriage and the family.
Coercive Power, St. Thomas More, and St. John Fisher
“These are the times that try men’s souls.” It was true for Thomas Paine, and it remains true today. It was true in 1534, when Henry VIII declared himself the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church in England. He demanded an oath of fealty from his subjects when his request to Rome for an annulment from his wife Catherine was refused—an annulment that would annul the first annulment to marry her. Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher would not bend to a divorce that would free Henry to marry Anne Boleyn. For this reason, he had them beheaded. They were neither the first Englishmen nor the last to suffer martyrdom for the faith.
In Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons,” there is a tense encounter between Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More. The Cardinal asks More, the future short-lived Chancellor, to approve of the King’s divorce. More replies: “Well, I believe, that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.” At his mock trial, the future saint declared, “I am the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
These days, tension in the country runs high and moral un-freedoms threaten to bring us low. We are still the greatest country on earth, but we need to keep a close eye on John Fisher and Thomas More in the rear-view mirror.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.