Thursday, July 5, 2012


After the dust attempts to settle (or not) in the wake (pun intended) of the Supreme Court’s decision that the Affordable Health Care Law is indeed constitutional, and ignoring the upcoming lawsuits against the HHS mandate attached to it, I want to reflect on the meanings of religious liberty and freedom of conscience and establishment in what I hope will be a calmer (if not more reasoned) manner.

The Catholic Church historically (read: especially—but not only—since President Obama’s health care legislative initiative) has been solidly in favor of universal health insurance made affordable to all.  The issue for the churches (Catholic and others) has been the HHS mandate that forces them to pay for others’ abortions (yes, the “morning after pill” is abortifacient).  Though the press has focused on this as an issue of contraception, the concerns are in fact much larger: can the government enact policies that are in direct opposition to the teachings and practices of a given religious body?

The answer surely is YES and NO.

Consider the circumstances of those Christian bodies (Quakers, Amish, Mennonites…) for which war is totally unacceptable from a moral and religious standpoint.  Can the government nevertheless impose a draft?  Of course it can, and in the past it has.  However:  there was from the beginning an “escape” of sorts for those who objected to bearing arms in warfare because of issues of conscience.  They were granted the status of “conscientious objectors,” and they were required instead to offer alternative service—perhaps as ambulance drivers or medics, for example.  Chaplains of any stripe, moreover, were never obligated to bear arms in the exercise of their duties.  So accommodation can be made.

Catholics (and others) are simply saying:  “It’s bad enough, from our point of view, that the law allows for abortions; we will acquiesce in the law, though we will try to persuade people that it is wrong.   All we ask here is don’t force us to pay for the abortions, as well.  We refrain from coercion of those exercising their legal right; please also refrain from coercion in making us pay for what we in conscience understand to be evil.”  This is not so hard to understand, I don’t think…

On the other hand, what do we really understand by the idea of “restricting freedom of exercise of religion”?  Although it is patently ludicrous to think that a Catholic university or hospital or social services center, by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t minister to or serve Catholics as its overwhelming majority, somehow doesn’t come under the aegis of the law’s definition of “Catholic institution,” we must also recall the context within which the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Liberty Dignitatis Humanae was crafted.  A then little-known auxiliary bishop from Poland, Karol Wojtyla, had a major hand in getting this document approved as he knew, first-hand, the struggles of the Polish people to exercise their freedom to worship under a communist regime.  Our situation in the United States is radically different from his, after all, isn’t it?

What if the Catholic Church (and others) were to lose its protected status (eg, tax exemptions) in the name of a completely secular State?  Would the Church be the worse, or the better, off for this?  I think of the position of the Ultramontanes (the ultra-conservative pro-papal authority wing) in the 19th century when they (foolishly) insisted that papal authority must include political and temporal sovereignty over the “Papal States” of central Italy).  This ended in fact in 1870, and it was ended legally in 1929.  To think the pope should not be a prince was regarded as heresy; to see those territories taken over (especially in Rome itself) was thought disastrous.  Yet there could have been no greater blessing to the papacy than the elimination of this completely unnecessary circumstance that history foisted on the papacy from about the 6th century.  Might a loss of privilege from the government here produce similar beneficent effects and blessing?

It is frankly futile to appeal to Scripture in judging issues and controversies like this—after all, there was no such thing as representative republican government (such as we have) in those days.   So appeals to texts like “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” are of little help.  What is of help, though, is historical precedent.  The Church seems most to be the Church (properly speaking) when it is in a minority and is persecuted.  The glory of God is a human being fully alive, St Irenaeus wrote in the 2nd century.   But often being “fully alive” meant being willing (and likely) to die for one’s convictions.  If the insight of the 2nd century North African theologian Tertullian (“The blood of martyrs is the seed-bed of the Church”) is true, then perhaps we might rejoice in some distancing of ourselves from positions of privilege and know that if we are to be prophetic we must be 1) often counter-establishment, and 2) always credible—in our witness if not always in our words.  So let’s get on with it.

1 comment:

  1. This blog adroitly demonstrates the art of defusing a universal explosive turn of events in our USA.
    The passions evoked by this socialistically focused administration and the volatile Supreme Court decision will not likely simmer down. Even after the November, 2012 election, the emotional tone will subset all the political views.
    The acceptance of Catholicism by catholics as a counter culture must be nurtured. Before it can be nurtured, a comprehensive understanding of Catholicism needs a firm cohesive foundation.
    The final statement in the blog, "So let's get on with it" is an ardent challenge -- do we have the courage to meet this challenge??