The big Catholic news item in the United States these days centers around the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring nearly all employers to offer health insurance plans that provide zero-deductible coverage for “preventative services” like sterilization and contraception, including drugs that cause abortion.
When the mandate was first proposed, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), citing our Constitutional right to “religious liberty” in light of the fact that Catholic moral teaching forbids such practices, requested a “conscience clause” that would provide an exemption for Catholic institutions.
Apart from allowing an exemption for institutions that fit a very narrow definition, the Obama Administration refused the Conference’s request and the majority of the American bishops have since spoken out, many of them issuing letters in their own name expressing everything from disappointment to outrage; some even going so far as to vow civil disobedience.
Bishop Olmstead of Phoenix, for example, said, “The Administration has cast aside the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty.” He said that the rule as it now stands will force us [Catholic institutions] to either “violate our consciences, or drop health coverage for our employees.”
“We cannot – we will not – comply with this unjust law,” Bishop Olmstead pledged.
These sentiments, or ones very similar, were echoed by many in the American episcopate at large, some bishops even had (or plan to have) their letters read aloud at Mass to encourage the faithful to join them in combatting what all seem to agree is an egregious assault on religious liberty.
A number of “conservative” Catholic commentators with whom I have spoken praised the bishops for “answering the wake-up call” and for “taking the gloves off” at long last to lock horns with the Obama Administration in so direct and so public a fashion.
For my part, even though I’m all-in with the call to fight the good fight, I see far more to lament than to applaud in this situation, beginning with the fundamental question of Catholic identity that it naturally begs.
If current events indicate anything at all it’s that we really need to take a step back and ask ourselves who we are. Are we Catholics first and Americans second, or vice versa?
Anyone paying attention to the bishop’s rhetoric over the last several weeks would have little choice but to conclude that they consider us to be Americans first and only Catholic secondarily. While this may indeed be the case by neither design nor intent, it’s difficult to deny that this is precisely the message our shepherds have been sending to all concerned.
Needless to say, this crisis of identity didn’t just appear on the scene out of nowhere like a community organizer fresh from a Saul Alinski seminar; rather, it has been brewing over the course of many decades, most notably those following the Second Vatican Council. Recent events, however, do bring the problem and its ill effects into sharper focus.
Just a brief look at the way in which the bishops framed their argument against the HHS mandate from day one makes it is clear that the crisis of which I speak is a major factor in bringing our shepherds to this point where they now finding themselves embroiled in a messy political battle rather than devoting the fullness of their energies more directly toward winning the battle for souls; i.e., teaching, sanctifying and governing the people of God.
- Instead of claiming recourse to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as one might reasonably expect of the Successors to the Apostles, many of our bishops have approached the matter almost exclusively from a civil liberties angle; busily citing the First Amendment of the Constitution.
- Rather than decrying the objective immorality of such acts as contraception and abortion (regardless of who practices them) and rejecting them as offenses against God and His Divine Law, most bishops are expressing outrage, not on the Lord’s behalf, but on man’s behalf as a violation of personal conscience.
- Rather than chastising our leaders for exceeding the limits of their power by commanding that which is contrary to the laws of nature and the will of God, they are criticizing the government for infringing upon “America’s first freedom.”
I could go on, but presumably you get the point. So now where do we find ourselves? I guess you could say “in a pickle” to put it politely.
- The bishops are now calling upon the faithful to join them in fighting this assault on our collective Catholic conscience. This sounds great until one considers the fact that the majority of Catholics today see no problem with contraception after decades of having been misled to believe that it’s OK to simply “follow one’s conscience” by wayward bishops, priests and theologians, many of whom spoke and wrote on the matter publicly yet suffered no consequence other than to become overnight liberal icons.
- The bishops are calling on the laity to join them in demanding that the government grant Catholic institutions a broad-based exemption in deference to our civil right to religious freedom. This sounds fine at first blush too until one considers that any claims that are founded on Constitutional law are going to elicit a response that is based upon a political calculation. President Obama and company are no dummies. They know darn well that most Catholics (regardless of employer), as well as those people working in Catholic institutions (Catholic and otherwise), who use contraception or who want to undergo a sterilization procedure (i.e., the majority), will be tickled to death to see this mandate go into effect. These are, after all, hard economic times.
So now what? As I said, this crisis has been decades in the making. No one, therefore, should expect the correction to be either quick or easy, or even painless for that matter.
Getting to the core of the matter of identity, the inimitable Fr. Z  is wont to say as often as anyone is willing to listen, “There can be no renewal of any aspect of our Catholic lives and identity without first a revitalization of our liturgical worship.” Needless to say, we have a very long way to go in this regard.
That said, one thing that every faithful Catholic can do right away – from the simplest of laymen to the most eminent of Cardinals – is to make it a point to think, and to act, and to speak on all matters in Catholic terms, as though we are proud to let it be known that we are Catholic first and Americans second.
I know… it sounds way too simple to be of any real value given the gravity of the battle at hand, but doing so, however subtly, underscores the fundamental truth that the Evil One is Hell bent on tempting human beings in our age to deny and with no small amount of success; namely, objective truth exists, His name is Jesus Christ, and He alone is King.