February 21, 2012 (HLIAmerica.org) – I am angry. Very angry. My government has demanded (not “requested”) that I violate my conscience. On Jan. 20, Kathleen Sebelius, head of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), announced that all institutions — schools, hospitals, clinics, etc., (even those conducted by religious groups opposed to the measures) — must cover in their insurance plans contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacients. This policy was endorsed and approved by the president.
The policy allows a “religious exemption,” but one which is so narrow that it would cover very few people — only those whose administrators and beneficiaries were all of the same religion. The exemption would cover convents and monasteries, but not Catholic grade schools, high schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, food kitchens or even businesses run by faithful Catholics. These institutions hire people of other faiths to help them in their mission and they serve people of other faiths as well as Catholics. So the institution must offer insurance plans that provide medical procedures that are immoral. The Catholic Church teaches that abortions and the use of artificial means to avoid conception are always wrong. I, as a Catholic, may not engage in wrong actions — nor cooperate in encouraging others to do so. “Forcing persons to cooperate in actions they judge to be evil is evil.” (E. Christian Brugger)
Following a great uproar that included even liberal Catholics and non-Catholics, the president announced an “accommodation” for Catholics that would, he said, put the onus for providing free contraception, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs on the insurance companies themselves, rather than the institutions. Of course, since no company would ever really provide these for “free,” this amounts to a shell game, and the uproar has not abated from faithful Catholics and those of other faiths who recognize this for the assault on religious freedom that it is.
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Shortly before the public announcements of the initial decision and the “accommodation,” President Obama phoned then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to tell him about the announcement. He initially told now-Cardinal Dolan that there would be a grace period of a year before the decree went into effect. The archbishop’s comment later was, “The president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.”
The irony in all of this is that the primary proponent of this decree, Kathleen Sebelius, claims to be a Catholic. Nancy Pelosi, House minority leader, also a Catholic, stated, “I strongly support this action to expand access to fundamental, basic health care.” And Catholic Vice President Joseph Biden, while silent on the measure before the “accommodation,” has since been its ardent supporter.
As a Catholic, I am bound by the decrees of Vatican II, an ecumenical council. And this council, summarizing the traditions of the Church, declared, “In the depths of their conscience, men and women detect a law which they do not impose on themselves but which holds them to obedience, a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of men and women. According to it they will be judged.” (GS #16) And yet as a member of a Catholic university I am told by civic authority now that I should be willing to violate my conscience. Indeed, forcing persons to cooperate in actions they judge evil is evil.
I had always thought that the United States, in the light of the Bill of Rights, respected religious freedom; that in fact this was the first of all of our rights. The First Amendment to the Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Years ago, some people in Florida killed chickens as part of their worship ceremonies. Laws were passed by civil authorities to prevent this. The United States Supreme Court said the laws were unconstitutional, violating the First Amendment. Around the same time, a Native American was fired from his government job because he engaged in smoking peyote as part of a religious ritual. This was initially considered as a violation of substance abuse laws. The Supreme Court reversed that judgment in the light of the First Amendment.
I am trying to understand why my government wants me to violate my conscience. Some say it is in order to penalize Catholic institutions which are a threat to health care policies. One in every six patients in the United States is cared for in a Catholic hospital. More than 50 Catholic health care organizations exist with over 750,000 employees. In Catholic schools, there are more than 150,000 professional educators and over two million students. And more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities serve over 900,000 students. The government wants to get control of their health care. Some people, more radical, claim that the aim of the government is to cause the very demise of Catholic schools and hospitals, because they are in conflict with the direction in which the secular elites want to take our nation.
What is to be done? I do not know at the moment, other than prayer, fasting and contacting our elected leaders. One thing I do know is that I will not violate my conscience. Ever.
A version of this article originally appeared in Today’s Catholic, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Antonio. Father John A. Leies, SM, STD, is a Contributing Writer of HLI America. He is president emeritus of St. Mary’s University and formerly served as head of the Theology Department there. His recent writings may be found at HLI America’s Truth and Charity Forum.