By Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference
After the Rally for Religious Liberty on March 27, I was making my way through a sea of red on the second floor of the Missouri State Capitol when an angry man accosted me and bitterly denounced the bishops for caving in to Obama. I asked him if he had heard Archbishop Carlson’s speech. He said he had been too far back. That’s too bad, I said.
I don’t know how much stronger a person could be. The St. Louis Archbishop put the President on notice: “Mr. Obama, you should know that we are ready to suffer for our convictions. You can fine us and we won’t pay. You can put me in jail. I don’t care.” In mandating that religious employers pay for abortion drugs, contraceptives and sterilization procedures, the Obama Administration has awakened a sleeping giant, namely the Catholic Church.
St. Paul counseled the Ephesians: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Ephesians 5:14). On this day, rally day, the sleepers had arisen and come from all corners of the state. Thousands stood in the first floor rotunda and more circled the banisters on the second and third floors.
When Archbishop Carlson greeted the assembly with “Hello Church!” thunderous applause erupted. You had a sense that the Early Church had been reborn and that for one moment we were all one—Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Assemblies of God and many more people of faith.
President Obama’s Feb. 10 “accommodation” of religious employers had changed nothing, the Archbishop told the faithful to ringing applause. Our religious liberties are under attack. (For why this remains true and a legal analysis of the “accommodation,” read The Accommodation That Isn’t on the next page.)
The mandate tells the Catholic Church that it can keep running its Catholic schools and hospitals so long as it pays for contraceptives and abortion drugs in its health plans. Or, it can refuse to do these things and scale back its ministries to Catholics only.
It seems as if the President has forgotten that church is about more than an hour of worship on Sunday. We can’t lock our religion away in a dark room. We have to spread the light of Christ and that includes those corporeal works of mercy we learned about as children. As Maggie Karner, the director of Life and Health Ministries for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, put it at the rally: “Mercy is intrinsic to Christian life. It’s not what we do. It’s who we are.”
Much of the secular media has simply ignored this point. They want to make this controversy about women’s health, or more specifically contraceptives. One nominal Catholic recently told me the men in red caps should quit interfering in women’s health care. If this were the real issue, then churches that disagree with Catholic teaching on contraceptives would not be opposing the HHS mandate. Mrs. Karner said the issue wasn’t about birth control and, “Quite frankly, when I see it represented in the media that way, I instantly know the reporter hasn’t done his homework.”
Yet many continue to view the whole matter as a tempest in a teapot. No one is stopping priests from saying Mass, after all. The editors of the Jesuit magazine America are chastising the bishops for exceeding their pastoral role by getting into the “fine points of the public policy” while pressing their religious liberty claims too far. In a March 5 editorial, the magazine lectured the bishops that the American public is “uncomfortable with an overt exercise of political muscle by the hierarchy.” Then, the editors opined: “They [the public] hope bishops will accept honorable accommodation and when provoked, not stir up hostility.”
Imagine these folks counseling the American colonists. We might still be British possessions. The editors of America magazine simply don’t get it. There are principles at stake here and if you surrender in one instance you weaken your right to object later. What America magazine calls “honorable accommodation” is nothing more than appeasement.
The editors of America think the bishops’ campaign “fails to acknowledge that in the present instance, claims of religious liberty collide with the right to health care …” Memo to the editors: what the Obama Administration is proposing is not “health care.” Pregnancy is not a disease, sterilization procedures for the sake of sterilizing are not medically necessary, and abortion drugs don’t promote health but kill an unborn child.
There is no compelling state interest behind the HHS mandate that would even remotely justify an abridgement of religious ministries offered by the Catholic Church. Yes, both Catholic teaching and the laws of our nation recognize there are limits to religious liberty. A person who invokes “religious liberty” to handle rattlesnakes in public places may end up in jail. But how is handing out free contraceptives a matter of public safety or public health?
The Obama Administration has overstepped a sacred boundary. In the process the administration has allowed the “reproductive freedom” ideology of Planned Parenthood and its minions to trump any concern for the poor, for what could be more detrimental to the poor than forcing out of business the many Catholic charities and hospitals that serve the needy of our country?
There are those who would like nothing better than to see the Church take its ball and go home, to exit the public square. But the Church is not going to run and hide. There is nothing wrong (and everything right) with the way the Church ministers to all Americans. We are here to stay and serve and do it in keeping with our religious values. The sleeper has awakened and, as Archbishop Carlson declared, “We are ready to march!”
This article was featured in the April 2012 MCC Messenger, a quarterly insert into the diocesan newspapers.