The U.S. Catholic Bishops, united in defense of religious freedom.
Americans accustomed to religious freedom may, at first blush, find it hard to imagine any possible analogy between our situation today, in the midst of the debate over the HHS "contraceptive mandate," and that of Poland's Christians in 1953; of course those brave men and women faced challenges far beyond those facing American believers today. Yet the structure of the moral and political argument, then and now, is eerily similar. In both cases, an overweening and arrogant government tries, through the use of coercive power, to make the Church a subsidiary of the state. In both cases, the state claims the authority to define religious ministries and services on its own narrow and secularist terms. In both cases, the state is attempting to co-opt as much of society as it can, while the Church is defending the prerogatives of civil society.
The March 14 statement of the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, "United for Religious Freedom," does not contain the kind of rhetorical flourishes that reached a dramatic coda in the Poles' ringing "Non Possumus!" Still, the U.S. bishops have drawn an unmistakably clear line in the sand.
Resisting pressures from both within and without the Church to retreat from their hitherto firm and unified opposition to the administration's HHS mandate and its bogus "accommodation" of religious concerns, the Administrative Committee — which includes bishops from across the spectrum of Catholic opinion and which does the conference's most urgent business between the semi-annual meetings of the entire episcopate — strongly reaffirmed statements by the conference president, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, and by individual bishops, that both the mandate and the "accommodation" are unacceptable. Moreover, the statement affirms, against charges of exaggeration, that present administration policy represents a threat to religious freedom of "unprecedented magnitude" that must be "rejected." And as for those who have long sought to play divide-and-conquer in this affair — from government officials to journalists to advocates of Catholic Lite — they, too, are sent an unmistakable signal in the March 14 statement: "We will not be divided, and we will continue forward as one."
The Administrative Committee's statement then crisply defines what the HHS mandate involves.
It involves an "unwarranted" and "extremely narrow" definition of who is a "religious employer " — a definition that "creates and enforces a new distinction" between Catholic houses of worship, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Church's charitable activities and its educational efforts. According to the administration's regulatory scheme, the latter will become "second class" citizens, in a dramatic break with both Catholic tradition and federal law.
It involves an attempt by the government to compel Catholic institutions that serve those of many faiths and no faith to violate Catholic teachings within the Church's own institutions, which is both an intrinsic injustice and a gross intrusion of state power into the Church's evangelical mission.
And it involves a violation of the civil rights of individuals, who will be compelled to act against their conscientious convictions, "whether in their sponsoring of, and payment for, insurance as employers; their payment of insurance premiums as employees; or as insurers themselves." This utter disregard for religious convictions and the rights of conscience is also, the bishops note, "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."
"United for Religious Freedom" concludes with a commitment to "accept any invitation to dialogue with the Executive Branch to protect the religious freedom that is rightly ours" — a formulation indicating that they will not come to any such further conversation as a supplicant, but as a defender of American tradition. The statement expresses support for a legislative remedy to the depredations of the HHS mandate, which, one assumes, will now focus on the Fortenberry bill in the House of Representatives. Finally, the statement reiterates the bishops' determination to pursue a remedy in the federal courts, which is their likeliest path to success. The reference to both the Constitution and "federal laws that protect religious freedom" suggests that the conference knows it has a strong case under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and will vigorously pursue it.
In sum, the bishops have rebuffed calls for a tactical retreat; the analysts who have not grasped the sea-change in perspective of the bishops' conference have been confounded; the Catholic Lite brigades have been challenged to think again about the gravity of the theological and constitutional issues involved in the mandate; and those who have supported the bishops thus far have been affirmed in their work.
There will be no compromise here, for there can be no compromise of first principles. Those who understand that will gather their energies and continue to defend both Catholic and American tradition.
George Weigel. "No Compromise." National Review Online (March 14, 2012).
Reprinted with permission of National Review Online. The original article on NRO is here.
George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of The End and the Beginning: John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explore.
George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.
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