As the debate regarding religious liberty gains attention and momentum, it is prudent to regularly examine the landscape and tone of this crucial discussion. Clarity and proper emphasis are of paramount importance when sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are just as crucial in politics. The White House Blog has made one attempt to map the developing landscape. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops quickly responded. Here's my take on some themes worth noting:
- Muddling of Conscience – The term "conscience" is being thrown around a lot already. Unfortunately, it's being used inappropriately in regards to the discussion at hand concerning the HHS decision to mandate coverage of morally evil procedures and products. Instead of focusing on the conscience rights of employers (like the Church services), some are trying to make this a discussion of the individual consciences of those who would receive the mandated coverage. I expected the National Catholic Reporter to muddy the waters in this regard (and they surpassed expectations here and here and here. Though to be fair, even NCR speaks out against the HHS decision here, and maybe, sorta, I'm still not sure: here). However, I'm still not sure why the Administration is making that appeal. On the White House blog, the claim was made: Contraception is used by most women: According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, most women, including 98 percent of Catholic women, have used contraception. The USCCB responds to the validity of this claim here, but it is worth noting that this line of reasoning is extremely inappropriate and dangerous in this discussion. By appealing to the behavior (not belief) of a particular religious group, the Administration (and others) are trying to indict the validity of an actual well-formed Catholic conscience. The claim might as well be: No one really holds that religious view so why should we respect it? This is how a government begins to form a litmus test for who's conscientious objection is worth respecting. We must all be extra careful to not muddy the "conscience" pool further.
- Playing the Blame Game – After I read Archbishop Joseph Naumann's letter about the HHS mandate at Mass this past Sunday, I was surprised that I began receiving email blaming the bishops for getting us in this mess. Supposedly, even Rick Santorum claims, "I took issue with the Catholic Bishops Conference, because..., you may remember, they embraced Obamacare." While some see this whole situation as the bishops getting their "just desserts," that is a totally unfair characterization. One: Obamacare did not meet the bishops criteria for just health care reform and did not receive an endorsement from them. Two: while some Catholic groups dissented, the bishops were quick and clear to admonish such behavior. Three: some people have a problem that the Catholic Church does support universal access to health care for all people. However, just because we support universal health care access does not mean that the bishops supported Obamacare (universal access doesn't have to come through only the government). That would be like saying that since the Catholic Church supports women's health they must be supporting Planned Parenthood. We all need to look in the mirror. There is enough blame to go around. As one priest I respect put it: we've been fornicating, contracepting, and aborting ourselves to death. We all need to preach, practice and embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a fuller way. We can have a big blame game party, but it will just get in the way of the real work to be done right now.
- Denying Holy Communion: Some of the Catholic faithful think that if the bishops would just be more sweeping in denying Holy Communion to Catholic politicians that obstinately support grave evil then we wouldn't have these types of headaches. I can see the reasoning, but let's remember that the Secretary of the HHS, Kathleen Sebelius, has been banned from receiving Holy Communion in both Kansas and Washington, D.C.. Obviously, more needs to be done than simply what the bishops have direct control over regarding the Sacraments.
- Conceding “Preventative Services” – Here's something really scary to consider: a trap is being set to get the Catholic faithful to support groups like Planned Parenthood. Bear with my wild speculations for a moment. No one is making a really strong case that the new HHS mandate is essential to ensure access to contraceptives, abortifacients and the like. An effective argument can probably be made that without the mandate there are still ways women can have access to "preventative services." Here's when I start to get afraid. If we want to make the claim that the new mandate violates religious liberty, that's one thing. However, we must be careful in becoming bedfellows with Planned Parenthood by claiming that the mandate is also unnecessary because women will still have access to contraceptives and the rest. DON'T GIVE IN TO THE TEMPTATION. Our ground is solid when it comes to religious liberty. There is no need to even discuss how people can obtain moral evils if they so choose. I'm starting to get paranoid that all this is a political game to see if Catholics will somehow admit the necessity of Planned Parenthood and "preventative services." If that happens, a political victory can still be had for the Culture of Death even if the HHS mandate is repealed.
Based on those observations, here are some recommendations on where we go from here:
- Storm Heaven and Earth – Remember, this is not merely a political contest. We must of course seek recourse to all the political tools we have at our disposal: Letters, Emails, Phone Calls, Blogs, Votes, etc. However, we must also make a real commitment in prayer to combat this new expression of the Culture of Death: Mass intentions, Rosaries, Holy Hours, Novenas, etc. Personally, I'm going to mention "religious liberty" in the petitions at Mass until this HHS mandate is changed.
- Support the Services at Stake – For as long as we're able to publicly practice our faith, we should take full advantage. I'm going to make a special effort to support those Catholic groups and activities that are particularly affected by the mandate. Even if you have a concern with some of these groups, this is the time to actively address them and become involved. We don't have the luxury to take the following for granted anymore: Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Schools, Catholic Hospitals, Catholic Campus Centers, Catholic Cemeteries, Catholic Media, Catholic Hospice, and many others.
- Get Educated – We need to be better informed. It's time we delve into our history, politics, and faith. I know I still have a lot to learn. Already silly phrases are being tossed around like: "well if the Catholic Church wants to get involved in health care and education..." A new story is trying to be woven. We must announce the truth boldly. Even a little research can bring up gems like the fact that the first non-military hospital in Kansas was a Catholic hospital. We were here before government over-regulation and we'll be here after it as long as we know what we're talking about and are willing to share it effectively. The USCCB has a site up to help specifically with the current religious liberty debate and they put out a helpful article on Six Things Everyone Should Know About the HHS Mandate.
- Get Ready – We are in the midst of a long endeavor for religious liberty. Don’t be surprised when other challenges start to emerge. Marriage is obviously already under attack and the assault will only intensify. If the story is starting to change about defining who can be licit employers, the story about who can licitly sign marriage licenses and for which couples is coming.
UPDATE 2/7/2012: Archbishop Joseph Naumann and Benedictine College have started a Memorare Army with the intention: We hope to gather a million memorares for the intention of religious liberty and stronger Catholic identity in public life in the United States. Please consider going to the site and making your pledge for 1,000 memorares.
UPDATE #2 on 2/7/2012: The St. Gianna Physicians Guild has a great petition worth signing that is endorsed by Cardinal Burke.
UPDATE #3 on 2/8/2012: Another petition that is worth checking out is on the White House site itself. It does require registration (name, email, zip code). At the time I signed, there were 27,281 signatures.