Talk to the Respect Life Commission
Bishop Randolph Calvo
May 14, 2012
At its meeting last November, the Catholic bishops of the United States authorized an ad hoc committee to address a growing trend in our nation to limit the constitutional freedom we have enjoyed to exercise our religion. This was before the Health and Human Services Department came out in January with its mandate for religious groups to provide insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. The mandate is just one example, albeit a very glaring and grave one, of a trend that is very troubling to anyone who takes the U.S. Constitution seriously. I will cite other examples, which are mentioned in the statement on religious liberty entitled, “Our First, Most Cherished Freedom,” issued in March by the Ad Hoc Committee of Religious Liberty and approved by the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I quote from that statement:
“Catholic foster care and adoption services: Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and the state of Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services—by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both—because those Charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit.”
Discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services: Despite years of excellent performance by the US Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services “in administering contract services for victims of human trafficking, the federal government changed its contract specifications to require the us to provide or refer for contraceptive and abortion services in violation of Catholic teaching.” A federal court in Massachusetts upheld this change, declaring that the First Amendment requires that religious institutions be disqualified from government contracts. It claimed that “the government somehow violates religious liberty by allowing Catholic organizations to participate in contracts in a manner consistent with their beliefs on contraception and abortion.”
State immigration laws: The Catholic bishops of Alabama, in cooperation with the Episcopal and Methodist bishops of that state, filed a lawsuit against the state’s recently passed immigration law. The bishops said the “the law makes illegal the exercise of our Christian religion…The “new Alabama law makes it illegal for a Catholic priest to baptize, hear the confession of, celebrate the anointing of the sick with, or preach the word of God to, an undocumented immigrant. Nor can we encourage them to attend Mass or give them a ride to Mass. It is illegal to allow them to attend adult scripture study groups, or attend CCD or Sunday school classes. It is illegal for the clergy to counsel them in times of difficulty or in preparation for marriage…”
Altering Church structure and governance: “In 2009, the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut Legislature proposed a bill that would have forced Catholic parishes to be restructured in manner contrary to the Church’s canon law by limiting the bishop’s and the pastor’s jurisdiction in the governance of their parishes.
One of the unprecedented things the Health and Human Services Mandate, besides forcing us to do something against our moral doctrine, was to define the scope of religious activity. Its exemption from the requirement to provide contraception and abortion-inducing drugs for all practical purposes was limited to employees who were engaged directly with church worship services. It excluded from the exemption Catholic hospitals, educational institutions and charities that served non-Catholics as well as Catholics. In other words, it defined what religion is—and thus the freedom to exercise religion—in a very narrow way, virtually limiting it to freedom of worship.
This is unprecedented and alarming, but it is not an isolated effort. There is perceived deliberate effort to change our understanding of religious liberty that would narrow freedom of religion to freedom of worship. Certainly, worship is an activity most religions engage in. As Catholics we gather for Mass, for the celebration of the sacraments, for devotions and other prayers. But we do more than this. Pope Benedict in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”), concisely stated that the three essential things we do as Church is to proclaim the Word, celebrate the sacraments, and engage in the ministry of service or charity. All three are essential: we proclaim the Word—which means preaching and teaching and evangelizing; we worship; and we serve those in need. So the things we do are found not only in a church building but also in schools, hospitals, soup kitchens, food pantries, clinics, homes for the aged, anywhere we teach or serve those in need.
The exercise of religion rightly entails the advancement of religious institution’s mission; it is not just one aspect which government will define. And this is what the HHS Mandate did and why it is objectionable. What it basically asserts is that the government will define what a religion is and does.
The image of the relationship between church and state in our nation has often been one first promoted by Thomas Jefferson—the wall of separation. In many ways it fits the First Amendment religion clause which is crafted in restrictive terms: the government shall not establish a religion nor shall it prohibit the free exercise of religion. But it seems apparent that the image of this “wall” is being used more and more to separate religion from public life, from the public square, from the media, to the point where it will not be visible. And so Nativity scenes, crosses, and the Ten Commandments are banned from public places and allowed only on private land. The “wall” is meant to guarantee religion’s freedom from government intrusion, but now it seems the “wall” more and more encloses around a church building and the private homes of citizens, limiting religion’s engagement in society and restricting the scope of the way it can exercise its mission.
What can we do about this situation? First of all, we need to persuade fellow Americans about the reality that religious liberty is threatened. I believe there are people who think we are making a mountain out of a mole hill. But people will not understand that your freedom or mine is threatened unless they put themselves in our position. We need to persuade fellow citizens that everyone’s freedom is at stake, not just ours.
For this reason, it is imperative that we Catholics do not make this a partisan issue. Religious liberty is not a Republican issue not is it a Democrat issue nor a Tea Party issue. It is an issue that affects Americans of all political persuasions. So we must come across in a non-partisan way. And for that matter, this is an issue not just for Catholics, but also for Jews, Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists.
Second, we have to stay focused on the issue of religious liberty. The Health and Human Services Mandate contains a number of problematic issues but, if we are to garner a broad consensus, we have to keep it focused on religious liberty. People will disagree about our teaching on contraception, but they will agree with the issue of religious freedom. If we want to uphold our teaching, then we need to protect our freedom to do so. I know people have attempted to frame this as a woman’s issue and so it’s important not to let others co-opt the debate.
Third, I believe we Catholics need to educate ourselves on the history of religious freedom in our country, the struggles of the past to assert our place in society, as well as the current challenges. The USCCB has started a series of bulletin inserts for this purpose. We Catholics also need to have an understanding of why and how the Church engages in the public square when it comes to the formation of policy, especially when these touch on basic moral issues. And it would be well for us to be familiar with the great body of Church teachings on social issues. For example, how many of us are familiar with the Declaration on Religious Freedom that comes from the Second Vatican Council?
Fourth, in whatever action we take to defend the freedom of religion, it must be done in a manner faithful to our Christian belief, namely, it always be done with charity and civil discourse.
Finally, we pray. We seek God’s help; we pray for our nation; and we ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We pray so that our actions and thoughts and motivation be rooted in and true to our faith and purified by charity.