I wish to begin this column by thanking so many people of our diocese who have expressed their strong support for the Church’s efforts these past few months to protect our religious freedom from the unjust intrusion of a government agency, the Department of Health and Human Services. I am deeply grateful for the prayers and actions of so many of our Catholic faithful, united in opposing the government’s invasive attempt to curtail the freedom we cherish as Catholics and as Americans. I am also very grateful to people of other faith communities who are standing with us in this important matter. I mention, in particular, the Missouri Synod Lutheran communities in Fort Wayne.
I write this column as an update on this issue since I addressed it several weeks ago. I ask for your continued support.
The United States Senate voted 51-48 on March 1st to table the bipartisan Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. Though disappointed by this vote, we must not be disheartened. As Bishop William Lori, the Chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated after the vote: “We will continue our strong defense of conscience rights through all available legal means. Religious freedom is at the heart of democracy and rooted in the dignity of every human person. We will not rest until the protection of conscience rights is restored and the First Amendment is returned to its place of respect in the Bill of Rights.” Bishop Lori explained that “we will build on this base of support as we pursue legislation in the House of Representatives, urge the Administration to change its course on this issue, and explore our legal rights under the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”
This week, I am in Washington, D.C., for several meetings of Committees of the USCCB of which I am a member or chair. At our Administrative Committee meetings, we will be discussing this important issue and our efforts as we move forward to protect our religious freedom. Be assured that we will not stop speaking out until our religious freedom is restored.
Why is this issue so important? It is about our most cherished freedom: religious liberty. Religious liberty is more than freedom of worship. It includes the freedom to do the works that our faith calls us to do, without compromising that faith. These works include education, health care, and social services. The government has no right to force our Catholic institutions to act contrary to Catholic beliefs by covering in our health plans abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraception. The unjust HHS mandate strikes at the heart of our fundamental right to religious liberty.
The so-called “accommodation” announced by President Obama last month has not rescinded or curtailed the unjust mandate. The mandate to provide the illicit services remains. It still compels coverage, though the President “conceded” that the insurance providers would have to pay the bill. Besides, many, if not most, of our ministries are “self-insured,” so we are still asking how we would be protected from this mandate. This is not to mention all individual believers, not just our Church institutions, who would be forced to pay for what violates their religious freedom and conscience. Many Catholic business owners and other faith-filled Catholics have shared with me the terrible position they are being placed in.
During the debate in the Senate, our opponents tried to obscure the truth that this is an issue of religious freedom by insisting that abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception are a “woman’s health issue.” As we hear the Church being lectured to about women’s health, it would be good to remind these opponents that the Catholic Church is the largest private provider of health care for women and their babies in the United States! Truth seems to be distorted, ignored, or denied in a climate of relativism.
It is also important to note that President Obama’s “accommodation” last month did not change the narrow definition of “religious employers” that are exempt from the mandate. It is terribly offensive to have the government telling us which of our ministries are “religious enough” and which are not. As I have written before, the Church should not be penalized for employing and for serving people who are not Catholic. Our institutions serve the common good and should not be threatened by government coercion to act contrary to our religious beliefs because we employ and serve non-Catholics.
My focus has been on the HHS mandate for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. But there are many other examples of the erosion of religious freedom in the United States. Last year in Alabama, a law was passed that makes it illegal to provide charity and pastoral care for undocumented immigrants. Just imagine: illegal for a priest to baptize or hear the confession of an undocumented immigrant! And illegal to administer the Anointing of the Sick to a sick or dying Catholic who is undocumented!
Another example from two years ago: perhaps you remember the attempt of the Senate in Connecticut to force Catholic parishes to be restructured according to a congregational model. Thankfully, this intrusion on the Church’s freedom was not successful.
Sadly, Catholic Charities in the Archdioceses of Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and several dioceses in Illinois were forced to stop providing adoption or foster care services because those agencies would not place children with cohabitating same-sex or unmarried opposite-sex couples.
I think everyone is probably aware of the discrimination against our USCCB Migration and Refugee Services. Even though we received the highest performance rating in administering services for victims of human trafficking, the federal government disqualified MRS from a contract because we would not provide or refer for contraception and abortion. Similar discrimination has disqualified Catholic Relief Services from contracts in its work for the poor in the Third World.
There is an urgent need that we impress upon our elected representatives the great importance of religious liberty and that, in voting, we consider the positions of those running for public office on this issue. We must stand fast in defending the right of religious freedom. And we must pray fervently for the protection of this liberty.
May Mary Immaculate, the patroness of our diocese and of our country, intercede for us!
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