Health Care Mandates and Religious Freedom

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A few days ago, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a mandate requiring all insurers to provide coverage for contraception, sterilization, and chemical abortions (abortifacients).   Under the new rules, all employers, without consideration of their moral convictions, will be forced to pay for insurance whose provisions may violate their consciences.  These arrangements apply to secular and religious institutions, including the apostolic works of the Catholic Church.

At least 171 U.S. bishops have criticized this decision as a violation of religious liberty and as an assault upon the freedom of the Church to participate in civil society.  The federal government’s response to this just criticism has been to propose an arrangement which is little more than smoke and mirrors, and which does little or nothing to address the Bishops’ concerns about Catholic conscience rights.

There are two important questions in this debate: first, the morality of contraception itself; and, second, whether or not any government has the authority to require individuals to violate their consciences, and thereby to limit religious freedom.

The Catholic Church has always taught that the use of artificial contraception is grave matter and a mortal sin, because it is a violation of God’s plan for married love.  Conjugal love – the expression of love between a husband and wife – is holy and is designed by God to express a thoroughly integrated love between spouses.  Conjugal love is authentic when it is both unitive – a sign of the total gift of one spouse to another, and procreative – marked by an openness to human life.

This is affirmed in the Rite of Holy Matrimony, when the couple promises “to love and honor each other as man and wife,” and “to accept children lovingly from God.”

Despite the clear witness of the Church’s teaching, many people regard contraception as necessary and even objectively good.  For them, it is hard to see how artificial birth control brings any negative consequences to their lives or marriages.  Clearly, the Church must strive to articulate the Catholic vision of marriage and conjugal love in a more effective way.

Despite the fact that many people view the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control as out of step with modernity, and thus, irrelevant to their lives, it is possible to identify the negative effects of contraception in society.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI warned that the widespread use of artificial birth control would lead to four negative consequences: (1) an increase of marital infidelity, (2) a general lowering of moral standards, (3) women being reduced to sexual objects, and (4) government coercion in family life and reproductive matters (Humanae Vitae, no. 17).  All of these things have come to pass.

In addition, falling birthrates – fueled by contraception, sterilization and abortion – are leading many nations toward a “demographic winter,” in which future generations will not be sufficiently large to replace existing populations.  As a consequence, societies will not have

sufficient wealth to support an ageing citizenry or to maintain their cultural identity.  This is already happening in our country and in all developed societies.  Given all of this, the federal government has decided to impose a regulation upon all employers forcing them to provide full insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and chemical abortion.  This mandate is a direct challenge to the fundamental right of the free exercise of religion, rooted in the natural law and guaranteed by our Constitution.

In a frequently cited example over the last week, imagine the government telling the Jewish owner of a kosher deli that he had to start serving pork.  This might seem completely reasonable to the bureaucrat: we need to support pork farmers and most people – including non-observant Jews – eat pork and want to be able to buy it from their neighborhood deli; therefore, the deli owner must sell it.

To the owner of the deli, however, this government intrusion into the operation of his business would appear capricious, irrational, and a violation of his religious principles.  He would view the government as attempting to define what it means to be Jewish.  And he would be right.  Is a Jewish deli owner imposing his religious views on the world because he doesn’t sell pork?  No.  Is he really inconveniencing anyone, especially since it is easy to find a non-kosher deli that sells pork?  No.  He is simply being true to his religious convictions. 

During his visit to the United States in 2008, Pope Benedict drew attention to the defining features of our nation’s founding:

“From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator… The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society, which faithfully embodied these noble principles… “ (Address of Benedict XVI, Welcoming Ceremony, April 16, 2008).

Many believe that we are in one of those moments of struggle.  If the state succeeds in defining what it means to be Catholic, and if the government can tell us that Catholic citizens are less equal than other members of our society, then we will need an heroic “intellectual and moral resolve,” as the Pope says, in order to defend our beliefs and create a space within our society in which we can practice our faith without coercion and with a holy and energetic witness.

I encourage you to pray for all of our government leaders, and for a just and clear resolution to this situation.  Read the Cardinal’s letter in the bulletin, visit the website of the Bishop’s Conference to educate yourselves on this issue, and to participate in a course of action.

Above all, let us pray that this will be a purifying moment for our Church and our nation, and that each of us will emerge from this moment as a stronger Catholic and a more sincere citizen.