On Friday, January 27, Bishop David A. Zubik, of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, published a strongly-worded statement concerning the new Health and Human Services mandate, which would force all businesses and institutions with more than 50 employees to offer a government-approved health insurance plan that covers contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients. In his statement, Zubik writes, "Kathleen Sebelius and through her, the Obama administration, have said 'To Hell with You' to the Catholic faithful of the United States." Bishop Zubik is not the only US Catholic bishop to write to condemn the HHS mandate. To date, over one hundred bishops have been documented as writing on this subject.
Are the US bishops venturing into party politics, in a way heretofore unseen? The answer is a firm "no." The US bishops have not suddenly changed their pastoral approach to Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, which contains the Church's teaching on contraception and birth control, in favor of a political approach. They have written, in a document that seeks to answer the questions of the faithful, that they are concerned with something entirely different: "a law in effect since 1973 says that no individual is required to take part in 'any part of a health service program or research activity funded in whole or in part under a program administered by the Secretary of Health and Human Services' if it is 'contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions' (42 USC 300a-7 (d)). Even the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which requires most of its health plans to cover contraception, exempts religiously-affiliated plans and protects the conscience rights of health professionals in the other plans. Currently, no federal law requires anyone to purchase, sell, sponsor, or be covered by a private health plan that violates his or her conscience." The US bishops, therefore, are concerned with the freedom of conscience, first of all; the Catholic objection to the new HHS mandate does not concern this or that group's decision to use contraception but rather over a principle that is almost as old as the Church herself: libertas ecclesiae or the freedom of the Church to govern herself.
In the year 311 AD, the Roman emperor Galerius, who had persecuted Christians throughout his reign, signed the "Edict of Toleration" or the "Edict of Serdica," which acknowledged that the Christians had been a "very tough nut to crack": "[Christians had] followed such a caprice and had fallen into such a folly that they would not obey the institutes of antiquity" and were for this reason, granted an indulgence; the edict further stated: "Wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the commonwealth may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes" (Edict of Toleration). With this capitulation, the Roman government guaranteed religious freedom, not just for Christians, but for every religion. Two years later, this universal religious liberty was spelled out in the "Edict of Milan" (313 AD) by the Emperor Constantine, who wrote: "Ut daremus et christianis et omnibus liberam potestam sequendi religionem quam quisque voluisset," which translated, means: “In order to give Christians and all others the power to follow the religion each one wants” (the emphasis is mine). It is important to note that this edict, set forth by the newly-converted Christian Constantine, offered freedom to "omnibus, all others."
Since 313 AD, the history of this principle, libertas ecclesiae, has provided both Church and various states to engage in the process of "fathoming to its depths the profundity of the word freedom, recognizing the inalienable space of the conscience, and laying the foundations for future Western civilization," explained Dr. Marta Sordi, the chair of Ancient History at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan for over twenty years and author of two volumes on the subject of the early Church, in an interview with Stefano Zurlo.
The United States was founded by people who believed passionately in freedom of religion. The first Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, in the Bill of Rights (December 15, 1791), states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...". This concept did not spring from the Founding Fathers' imaginations but was rather the fruit of the reflection and experience of generations of thinkers, which took place over the course of almost two millennia. Now that the freedom of religion has been codified and written into law, no citizen of the United States, not even the President, has the right to violate the freedom of conscience of any church or individual in America. As Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and President of the United States Conference of Catholic bishops (USCCB) writes, "Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights" (video, released January 20th).
The USCCB has prepared a very clearly written, two-page document that addresses certain misunderstandings that have arisen as a result of the Catholic Church's response to the new HHS mandate. Here is one example of a question the document addresses, followed the bishops' response to that question: "Do religious employers violate the consciences of women who want birth control, by refusing to cover it in their employee heath plans? Answer: No, they simply decline to provide active support for procedures that violate their own consciences. If an employee disagrees, he or she can simply purchase that coverage or those procedures elsewhere."
The United States bishops have been galvanized by an injustice perpetrated by the US Department of Health and Human Services and thus by the man who has ultimate responsibility for its decisions: President Obama. Their outrage is in response to the threat to libertas ecclesiae and in no way signals a new or different approach to promulgating Humanae Vitae in the United States. By suggesting that employees of Catholic institutions and dioceses should be free to purchase contraception elsewhere, the Church is defending the consciences of its employees and members by allowing them the freedom to choose good or evil.
In 2007, the USCCB published a document titled, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizens" that has been under attack by some, including bishops (notably Bishop Joseph Martino and Bishop Charles Chaput) for containing "several passages (Sections 34-37) that are capable of overly-broad interpretation," wrote Deal Hudson for the Catholic Advocate. The USCCB, however, has decided not to revise the document for the 2012 election. Bishop Stephen Blaire, chair of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, told the National Catholic Reporter that he had canvassed several chairs of other bishops' committees and found, "No one said the document needs to be scrapped. There was from the beginning a consensus to work with the text that had been approved in 2007."
Bishop Zubik's statement includes this passage, "A million things are wrong with this: equating pregnancy with disease: mandating that every employer pay for contraception procedures including alleged contraceptives that are actually abortion-inducing drugs; forcing American citizens to choose between violating their consciences or providing health care services; mandating such coverage on every individual woman without allowing her to even choose not to have it; forcing every person to pay for that coverage no matter the dictates of their conscience." He attacks the mandate, though, and not the political party to which the president belongs. He rallies his readers to political action: writing letters to every appropriate political leader, voicing outrage; but he does not tell the members of his diocese how to vote in the next election. He is following the same principle that caused the bishops of the USCCB to unanimously support "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizens." Bishop Blaire, when explaining his support for "Forming Consciences," clarified, "We had to remind people that this is not a voter guide. I am very strongly committed to the idea that it is not the role of the Church to tell people how to vote. Our role is to provide some moral perspective so people can form their moral conscience." Bishop Blaire's distinction is one that both liberal and conservative Catholics should ponder with care. The Church's role is first and foremost to proclaim Jesus Christ and to witness to His presence among us, and Jesus, speaking to his followers, gave the principles that allow us true freedom: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted..." (Mt 5).