Disclaimer: I am not at all an expert on the hhs mandate, the US Constitution, women’s health issues, insurance costs, or contraception costs and needs. But of all the recent Catholic headlines out there, nothing baffles me more than rallying cry for religious freedom that has gone up in the wake of the mandate.
I jumped on the hhs bandwagon relatively late – the regulation was first released in August, 2011, but I didn’t hear much about it until Obama and the bishops began going back and forth on the issue in February and March. I read a few articles, keeping more or less up to date on new negotiations, but no one I knew was really heavily invested in it or interested in discussing it, so I just filed it away in the look-something-catholic-is-getting-national-attention-but-it-doesn’t-really-affect-me part of my brain.
But then, something happened. Two things, really. First of all, I realized that as an employee of a Catholic social service agency that does not qualify for the narrow exemption, this seemingly far-off policy actually does impact me, in a profoundly personal and professional way. And secondly, on perhaps a less ego-centric note, I attended a young adults speaker event and the speaker, a priest that I very much respect, went a bit off topic to touch upon what a pivotal moment this mandate was for the Catholic Church in America.
So with that extra push of perceived relevancy, I started to do some more intentional research. I had heard that the brief filed by Notre Dame was the best piece of writing on this by the “this is a breach of religious freedom” crowd, so I read it. All of it. It’s a legal brief, so obviously it’s dense, but I actually found it very engaging and if you’re even mildly curious about what exactly these Catholic institutions are complaining about, it’s well worth the read. What I like most about it is that Notre Dame makes it explicit that this is not about the morality or accessibility of contraceptives
This lawsuit is about one of America’s most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one’s religion without government interference. It is not about whether people have a right to abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception. Those services are, and will continue to be, freely available in the United States, and nothing prevents the Government itself from making them more widely available.
But this is also precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about this whole thing. Can we really call this a violation of religious freedom? Especially when we have sisters and brothers suffering in parts of the world where there truly are governmental impediments to freedom of religion and worship. Just this week alone, a Protestant church was forced to shut down in Tehran, a Christian leader was arrested for allegedly having “too many conversions,” and a suicide bomber and gunmen attacked Nigerian churches – and that’s just looking at Christianity!
Personally, I do believe that contraceptives and abortifacients are morally objectionable, and I also recognize that that stance comes directly from my religious tradition. I also understand, and agree, that forcing Catholic institutions to pay for that which they find morally objectionable is in itself morally objectionable and does technically “violate” religious freedom. But at the same time, I also understand that for many women and families, contraception has become a normalized and costly part of their lives, and this mandate would in fact ease the financial burden of some of those women. So in that sense, the government should work to make it more affordable. The issue comes in with how they’re doing it – if the government believes that women should have covered access to birth control, fine. It’s not my thing, but fine. But if that’s the case, they should pay for it; use their money to back up that this really is something that our nation is passionate about and should be a “right.”
So in that sense, I suppose I am very anti-hhs mandate, but where my ambivalence remains is in the question of what to do about it. When Franciscan University of Steubenville very loudly and enthusiastically dropped health insurance for students and employees rather than be forced to eventually submit to the terms of the mandate, my first thought was, but what about those students who can’t get health insurance any other way? As an undergraduate student, I was on my college’s health insurance plan, but if that wasn’t there I always had my parents’ plan to fall back on, but I recognize that that was a unique privilege of my class, race, background, and a whole slew of factors that I am ordinarily blind to but depend on to get through my life. And what about those employees? How can they be expected to raise families without health care coverage?
I think that what frustrates me most about this whole thing is that it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation (which the Notre Dame brief brilliantly points to – seriously, if you haven’t, read it). Catholic services and institutions must choose between violating Catholic social teaching regarding either contraceptives OR affordable health care.
So, then, what’s the answer? As much as I admire Franciscan University’s steadfast commitment to its Catholic identity, I do not think that it is a solution that others would be wise to follow. Yes, it sends a strong message they will not compromise their religious identity and beliefs, but it also serves to victimize those who are most vulnerable, those without alternate means to safe and affordable health care. The only real way out of this, at least that I can see, is for the government to expand its definition of which institutions qualify for the exemption and allow Catholic institutions to make atrue choicein the matter. And for that, unless you are into political lobbying, which I am hopelessly not, then I think the best plan of action we have is simply to pray.
The US bishops have declared a ‘Fortnight for Freedom’ from June 21 – July 3 to join in prayer, study, and public action to defend our right to religious freedom, and I’ve already received email notifications for events happening around my city for it. As much as I struggle with framing the HHS mandate as a full-fledged attack on religious liberty, especially considering how many unchecked privileges we as Christians and Americans actually do enjoy, I certainly will be joining in these two weeks, praying that this matter can be resolved in the way that will lead to the victimization and harm of the least number of people.
Do we need marches and speeches and catchy protest slogans? Maybe, but they have their potential for doing just as much harm as good. If making our message louder and more visible is what works for people, than so be it, but what I really believe that we need is more people in this nation on their knees. This whole thing is a mess; I don’t know how to fix it, but I guarantee that God does, and I for one, will choose to trust in that.
- Nationwide Rallies Target Birth Control Measure (abcnews.go.com)
- Boom! Dozens of Catholic institutions file suits over HHS mandate (nicedeb.wordpress.com)
- Pelosi: Those bishops suing HHS don’t speak for the Catholic Church (hotair.com)