The federal government’s new mandate — requiring Catholic charities, schools, universities and hospitals to supply employees with health insurance that covers birth control, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs — has become maybe the most controversial issue of our day.
I’ve been inspired by the unified reaction from our Catholic community. The bishops of almost every diocese in the country have spoken out. So have our largest Catholic institutions. Many individual Catholics — of every political opinion — have united in opposition.
Other religious groups and many other Americans have also joined the protest — because this new mandate, of course, affects every employer in America.
As this debate continues, it is important to remember that the Catholic Church did not choose this conflict.
The Church wants to be a partner with our neighbors and our government in building a more just and peaceful society — a society more worthy of the dignity of the human person who is the image of God. The Church’s mission in our society is to teach, heal and to care for others; to pray and to lead our neighbors to God.
Our freedom to carry out our mission is totally threatened by this new mandate. But we are not just protecting our own parochial interests. As I have said, the issues at stake go far beyond the morality of contraception. This government mandate threatens the basic character of our society and puts every American’s freedom at risk.
America was founded to be a diverse society with many layers of institutions and affiliations.
America’s founders understood that human life is more than politics or economics. They created structures of government and an economic system intended to promote individual liberty. They also created a space of freedom in which a rich “civil society” could grow — all sorts of independent churches and religions, neighborhood groups, clubs, volunteer organizations, trade unions, leagues, charities, foundations and more.
In the founders’ vision of civil society, churches and religious agencies held a special place. They believed religion was essential for democracy to flourish because religion instills the values and virtues people need for self-government.
That’s why the First Amendment protects churches and individuals from the government meddling in what they believe, or in how they express and live out those beliefs. That’s also why the government has always felt comfortable providing funding for Church charities and ministries that serve the common good of all Americans.
What’s been happening in recent decades is that government at all levels has been exerting greater influence in almost every area of American life.
In the process, non-governmental institutions are being crowded out of our public life. Civil society is shrinking and the influence of civic associations in our lives is getting weaker. The rights and freedoms of churches are increasingly restricted by court orders and government policies. Religious freedom is now reduced to the freedom to pray and to go to church.
And more and more, Church agencies are now treated as if they are arms of the government. Increasingly, these agencies are expected to serve and submit to the government’s agendas and priorities.
None of this is good for our democracy or our individual liberties.
America’s founders knew that a strong civil society and flourishing faith communities are our last best protection against tyranny — against the government becoming too big and all-powerful and all-controlling in our lives.
That is why I think this new mandate has struck such a nerve — not only with Catholics and other believers, but also with millions of our fellow citizens.
People are realizing that if the government denies our fundamental freedom to hold religious beliefs and to order our lives according to these beliefs, then there is no real freedom for anyone.
This new mandate moves us closer to what Pope Benedict XVI warned against in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”): “The state which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself … a state which regulates and controls everything.”
When I first wrote about this new mandate two weeks ago, I said this is a time for Catholic action and Catholic voices. This is still the time.
We need to defend our rights as Catholics. Not only to pray and worship. But also to be able to express our faith through our Catholic institutions and to make our own contribution to the decisions that affect the common good and future of our society.
We also need to help our political leaders understand what is at stake in this debate. My brother bishops and I in the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops are supporting legislation that would rescind this unjust policy. For more information and to take action, visit the U.S. bishops’ website: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/conscience-protection/index.cfm
Let’s pray for one another this week. And let’s ask Mary Immaculate, Patroness of the United States, to pray for our country.
Reprinted with permission of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in which this article first appeared Feb. 10, 2012.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.