Letters & Op-Eds 2012

Reclaiming religious freedom

The decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to extend no-copay contraceptive coverage to employee health plans caused a veritable firestorm. Leading the voices of opposition has been the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose representatives claimed that they “cannot — will not — comply with this unjust law [because] people of faith cannot be made second-class citizens.” Even when President Barack Obama announced changes to the HHS ruling, the bishops demurred, arguing that it violated the Constitution on the grounds of religious freedom.

Charges that the rule infringed the bishops’ religious freedom were ubiquitous in their demands for exemptions from complying with the law. Leaving aside that fact that many of the bishops already comply with similar existing state laws, it’s worth spending a few moments considering the subject of religious freedom from a Catholic point of view, for it is something that the Vatican has written on extensively — especially in “Dignitatis Humanae,” the Declaration on Religious Freedom.

“Dignitatis Humanae” is Catholicism at its best: a guiding light for Catholics seeking to live a better life and enable others to do the same. Grounded in the complex and challenging realities of being a person of faith in a secular world, the declaration tells us that in protecting and promoting religious freedom, conscience is foremost: each person is bound to follow it, and nobody can be forced to act contrary to their conscience. The HHS decision harmonizes well with this vision: It gives women the power to act according to the dictates of their individual conscience.

The problem is the U.S. bishops don’t respect the consciences of the 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women who have used a form of birth control banned by the Vatican. These women doubtless would cite their well-being and that of their families for their moral decisions, but the bishops have seen fit to ignore this and have not been shy in expressing their point of view accordingly.

It is unquestionable that the church hierarchy has been unsuccessful at convincing rank-and-file Catholics to reject birth control. When the ban on family planning was first announced in 1968, the U.S. bishops agreed with their brethren in Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, France and Holland, recognizing that ultimately, the decision about using contraception is not theirs to make. They each said that although church teaching favors natural family planning, should a Catholic woman wish not to become pregnant, an honest decision about which method to use, made in good conscience, is the correct one for her. And it must be respected.

However, as with the others, the U.S. bishops buckled to pressure from the Vatican and now are trying to get the government to legislate their point of view so that Americans — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — have a harder time accessing birth control. The bishops’ vow to take their objection to the Supreme Court smacks of the very coercion the Catholic church has warned against.

The Declaration on Religious Freedom refers to “the leaven” of the church’s “quiet work in the minds of men.” As anyone who has ever baked a loaf of bread knows that the yeast mustn’t get too hot or it won’t work. The same can be said about persuasion. The bishops have heated up the question of contraceptive coverage to the point that anyone who supports the HHS decision is branded “anti-Catholic.” By contrast, the USCCB’s campaign to shape civil law according to a widely rejected church teaching is seen as something of a holy war.

In fact, by not bowing to the USCCB’s pressure tactics and instituting a more expansive conscience exemption, the Obama administration respected Catholic religious teachings in the Declaration on Religious Freedom, which said, “Government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons.” In this case, the bishops are the ones who are seeking the “discrimination among citizens” with their quest for an ever-larger exemption for religious institutions.

Catholics are called to demonstrate “respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all” in the “careful observance of the principle of religious freedom.” We can only hope that the bishops take this important Catholic teaching into account as this debate continues.

This article was originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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