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From the May/June, 2012 issue of Touchstone


Party Over Time by S. M. Hutchens


Party Over Time

Unfortunately, We Were Right in 2003
by S. M. Hutchens

On March 14 the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in response to the Obama administration’s requirement that religious institutions pay for sterilization and contraception, including the use of abortifacient drugs, as a part of their employees’ health plans, even when such provision is in violation of their moral teachings. The administration’s original frontal attack in simply imposing the requirement on the institutions was modified by a “compromise,” allowing the cost to be paid indirectly, by the insurance carriers rather than the institutions themselves.

The bishops, however, are not fools who would see this maneuver as anything other than propaganda for the use of the media and the deception of the simple, nor are they knaves who would, for some perceived advantage to the influence of their offices, approve it on behalf of their church. They note this debate is not about universal access to health care, which has been one of their concerns for generations, or about banning access to contraception, nor does it concern the freedom of Catholics only, but of all Americans who recognize that their traditional religious liberties may well be “next on the block.” It is “not about the Church wanting to force anybody to do anything; it is instead about the federal government forcing the Church—consisting of the faithful and all but a few of its institutions—to act against Church teachings.”

The new federal regulations, they observe, involve an excessively narrow definition of religion. The mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) gives exemption only to religious employers who must hire and serve primarily those of their own faith, a definition that in effect tells the church how it must now limit its mission in the world to function as it traditionally has in the United States in respect to all people:

The Health and Human Services Department thus creates and enforces a new distinction—alien both to our Catholic tradition and to federal law—between our houses of worship and our great ministries of service to our neighbors, namely, the poor, the homeless, the sick, the students in our schools and universities, and others in need, of any faith community or none.

A New, Unprotected Class

The mandate, unprecedented in federal law, not only requires Catholics to act against their own teachings, but creates a new class without any protection of conscience in matters where the president and the federal executive have, through administrative fiat untried in the legislature and untested by the courts, arrogated to themselves the authority to override religious conviction:

The exemption is not merely a government foray into internal Church governance, where government has no legal competence or authority—disturbing though that may be. This error in theory has grave consequences in principle and practice. Those deemed by HHS not to be “religious employers” will be forced by government to violate their own teachings within their very own institutions. This is not only an injustice in itself, but it also undermines the effective proclamation of those teachings to the faithful and to the world. . . . The HHS mandate creates still a third class, those with no conscience protection at all: individuals who, in their daily lives, strive constantly to act in accordance with their faith and moral values. They, too, face a government mandate to aid in providing “services” contrary to those values—whether in their sponsoring of, and payment for, insurance as employers; their payment of insurance premiums as employees; or as insurers themselves—without even the semblance of an exemption. This, too, is unprecedented in federal law, which has long been generous in protecting the rights of individuals not to act against their religious beliefs or moral convictions.

Finally, the bishops, promising they shall do everything within their power to oppose this attempt to destroy the longstanding recognition of the right of Catholic Americans to act upon their faith in matters of conscience touching their mission in the world, call upon the Catholic faithful, and all people of faith, to join them “in prayer and penance for our leaders, and for the complete protection of our First Freedom—religious liberty—which is not only protected in the laws and customs of our great nation, but rooted in the teachings of our great Tradition.”

The editors of Touchstone believe it important to keep this issue before our readers, and to assure them we, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, stand firmly with these bishops. This is not simply a Catholic concern, but for all Christians, and, one should hope, for all Americans. There are few active believers who have not in recent years felt the cold hand of an aggressively secular government moving them, under threat of law, and contrary to the laws and customs of the United States, to think and act against their consciences. Only the dullest could suppose that this move, here primarily against the Catholic Church, is not a manifestation of deep hostility against traditional Christian doctrine and practice—indeed, against the Judeo-Christian moral imperative, wherever it is found—or that those who tell Catholics what they must do about contraception or be punished, are not anxious to do the same to other Christians simply for behaving as Christians.

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A Clear Tocsin

There is one part of the bishops’ statement this writer would like to see amended, namely, that “this is not a Republican or Democratic, a conservative or liberal issue; it is an American issue.” To be sure, any American, whatever his political or social orientation, who is interested in seeing his own freedoms protected should invest in the same protection for all. But there is another sense in which this statement does not appear to provide the admonition of Catholic citizens one might reasonably expect. The fact is that the people who have produced and plan to enforce the administrative laws decried by the bishops are, by and large, liberals who belong to the Democratic party. If the bishops give the impression of being equivocal about the beliefs and intentions of this party, they are passively working against the prayers they have solicited from the faithful in this document.

In June 2003, Touchstone published an editorial titled “Practical Atheism,” in which we said the journal is not partisan in the sense of being intentionally for any party, but is against what the Democratic party currently espouses. Our call was not to become Republicans, for political conservatism, while it may under certain conditions serve orthodox religion, is not invariably its friend. Rather, we expressed strong doubt that Christians could believe and act as Christians in cooperation with the program of the Democratic party as it stands. Now we are more convinced of it than ever, and believe the nation and the church well served by explicit pastoral instruction to that effect. As dangerous as taking up this oracle has become, it is now more dangerous for the trumpet to give an uncertain sound.

—S. M. Hutchens

S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.

“Party Over Time” first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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