Religious Liberty: Mapping the Developing Landscape

As the debate regarding religious liberty gains attention and momentum, it is prudent to regularly examine the landscape and tone of this crucial discussion. Clarity and proper emphasis are of paramount importance when sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are just as crucial in politics. The White House Blog has made one attempt to map the developing landscape. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops quickly responded. Here’s my take on some themes worth noting:

  • Muddling of Conscience – The term “conscience” is being thrown around a lot already. Unfortunately, it’s being used inappropriately in regards to the discussion at hand concerning the HHS decision to mandate coverage of morally evil procedures and products. Instead of focusing on the conscience rights of employers (like the Church services), some are trying to make this a discussion of the individual consciences of those who would receive the mandated coverage. I expected the National Catholic Reporter to muddy the waters in this regard (and they surpassed expectations here and here and here. Though to be fair, even NCR speaks out against the HHS decision here, and maybe, sorta, I’m still not sure: here). However, I’m still not sure why the Administration is making that appeal. On the White House blog, the claim was made: Contraception is used by most women: According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, most women, including 98 percent of Catholic women, have used contraception. The USCCB responds to the validity of this claim here, but it is worth noting that this line of reasoning is extremely inappropriate and dangerous in this discussion. By appealing to the behavior (not belief) of a particular religious group, the Administration (and others) are trying to indict the validity of an actual well-formed Catholic conscience. The claim might as well be: No one really holds that religious view so why should we respect it? This is how a government begins to form a litmus test for who’s conscientious objection is worth respecting. We must all be extra careful to not muddy the “conscience” pool further.
  • Playing the Blame Game – After I read Archbishop Joseph Naumann’s letter about the HHS mandate at Mass this past Sunday, I was surprised that I began receiving email blaming the bishops for getting us in this mess. Supposedly, even Rick Santorum claims, “I took issue with the Catholic Bishops Conference, because…, you may remember, they embraced Obamacare.” While some see this whole situation as the bishops getting their “just desserts,” that is a totally unfair characterization. One: Obamacare did not meet the bishops criteria for just health care reform and did not receive an endorsement from them. Two: while some Catholic groups dissented, the bishops were quick and clear to admonish such behavior. Three: some people have a problem that the Catholic Church does support universal access to health care for all people. However, just because we support universal health care access does not mean that the bishops supported Obamacare (universal access doesn’t have to come through only the government). That would be like saying that since the Catholic Church supports women’s health they must be supporting Planned Parenthood. We all need to look in the mirror. There is enough blame to go around. As one priest I respect put it: we’ve been fornicating, contracepting, and aborting ourselves to death. We all need to preach, practice and embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a fuller way. We can have a big blame game party, but it will just get in the way of the real work to be done right now.
  • Denying Holy Communion: Some of the Catholic faithful think that if the bishops would just be more sweeping in denying Holy Communion to Catholic politicians that obstinately support grave evil then we wouldn’t have these types of headaches. I can see the reasoning, but let’s remember that the Secretary of the HHS, Kathleen Sebelius, has been banned from receiving Holy Communion in both Kansas and Washington, D.C.. Obviously, more needs to be done than simply what the bishops have direct control over regarding the Sacraments.
  • Conceding “Preventative Services” – Here’s something really scary to consider: a trap is being set to get the Catholic faithful to support groups like Planned Parenthood. Bear with my wild speculations for a moment. No one is making a really strong case that the new HHS mandate is essential to ensure access to contraceptives, abortifacients and the like. An effective argument can probably be made that without the mandate there are still ways women can have access to “preventative services.” Here’s when I start to get afraid. If we want to make the claim that the new mandate violates religious liberty, that’s one thing. However, we must be careful in becoming bedfellows with Planned Parenthood by claiming that the mandate is also unnecessary because women will still have access to contraceptives and the rest. DON’T GIVE IN TO THE TEMPTATION. Our ground is solid when it comes to religious liberty. There is no need to even discuss how people can obtain moral evils if they so choose. I’m starting to get paranoid that all this is a political game to see if Catholics will somehow admit the necessity of Planned Parenthood and “preventative services.” If that happens, a political victory can still be had for the Culture of Death even if the HHS mandate is repealed.

Based on those observations, here are some recommendations on where we go from here:

  • Storm Heaven and Earth – Remember, this is not merely a political contest. We must of course seek recourse to all the political tools we have at our disposal: Letters, Emails, Phone Calls, Blogs, Votes, etc. However, we must also make a real commitment in prayer to combat this new expression of the Culture of Death: Mass intentions, Rosaries, Holy Hours, Novenas, etc. Personally, I’m going to mention “religious liberty” in the petitions at Mass until this HHS mandate is changed.
  • Support the Services at Stake – For as long as we’re able to publicly practice our faith, we should take full advantage. I’m going to make a special effort to support those Catholic groups and activities that are particularly affected by the mandate. Even if you have a concern with some of these groups, this is the time to actively address them and become involved. We don’t have the luxury to take the following for granted anymore: Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Schools, Catholic Hospitals, Catholic Campus Centers, Catholic Cemeteries, Catholic Media, Catholic Hospice, and many others.
  • Get Educated – We need to be better informed. It’s time we delve into our history, politics, and faith. I know I still have a lot to learn. Already silly phrases are being tossed around like: “well if the Catholic Church wants to get involved in health care and education…” A new story is trying to be woven. We must announce the truth boldly. Even a little research can bring up gems like the fact that the first non-military hospital in Kansas was a Catholic hospital. We were here before government over-regulation and we’ll be here after it as long as we know what we’re talking about and are willing to share it effectively. The USCCB has a site up to help specifically with the current religious liberty debate and they put out a helpful article on Six Things Everyone Should Know About the HHS Mandate.
  • Get Ready – We are in the midst of a long endeavor for religious liberty. Don’t be surprised when other challenges start to emerge. Marriage is obviously already under attack and the assault will only intensify. If the story is starting to change about defining who can be licit employers, the story about who can licitly sign marriage licenses and for which couples is coming.

UPDATE 2/7/2012: Archbishop Joseph Naumann and Benedictine College have started a Memorare Army with the intention: We hope to gather a million memorares for the intention of religious liberty and stronger Catholic identity in public life in the United States. Please consider going to the site and making your pledge for 1,000 memorares.

UPDATE #2 on 2/7/2012: The St. Gianna Physicians Guild has a great petition worth signing that is endorsed by Cardinal Burke.

UPDATE #3 on 2/8/2012: Another petition that is worth checking out is on the White House site itself. It does require registration (name, email, zip code). At the time I signed, there were 27,281 signatures.


  1. Well done, Joe. This is excellent.

    That 98% statistic galls me. I believe the full citation states that 98% of Catholic women use OR HAVE USED birth control. Well, that includes me! My husband and I contracepted for two years, while we were both Lutheran. Then we converted to Catholicism and immediately quit using any form of contraception. So, I’m part of the 98% but that doesn’t mean I support this mandate! (Although it is, as you said, irrelevant.) Still, it gives a very false idea of how many Catholic women may be (or may not be) contracepting.

  2. Thanks, JoAnna, but Fr. Andrew wrote this post. Let’s just say what he lacks in quantity of posts, he makes up for in quality. (I’ve already received text messages today thanking for me for his post).

  3. I think part of the desire to have a more public denial of Holy Communion, by some, is the effect it has on the laity who think like these politicians. There may be a sentiment of, “I can support this like the politicians do, I haven’t heard any repercussions come to them.” Just a thought. More vocalness could be a wake-up call as to the seriousness of the matter.

  4. I wonder if the number of people who listen to music and have at one point in their life participated in ‘file sharing’ is well above 50%. I know the law says it’s illegal and the music industry executives and movie industry executives have been quite adamant condemning this practice, even though some perhaps even a number of their own employees have at one point ‘shared’ a media file. Perhaps it’s time for a government mandate that music and movie companies provide their employees and more broadly all companies provide their employees subsidies for internet access and file sharing software? Maybe I’m just not seeing something that makes the analogy irrelevant?

  5. I know plenty of Jewish people who have violated kosher laws, so why not a law requiring everyone to buy non-kosher food?

    This sort of reasoning is, of course, the worst sort of majoritarianism. Because, essentially, it says, “that religious practice isn’t followed by many people, so let’s step on it!”

    It’s also worth considering to every Catholic currently using or contemplating contraception. It’s not just some private act between you and God. The government is actually using your disobedience to try to drive a stake into the Church.



  6. Thanks for all the feedback!

    gmart: what is going on in UK schools is truly horrific and I’m sure there are some in the US who long for such practices to come across the Atlantic.

    Taylor: I totally support the proper application of canon law for Catholic politicians. I’m very proud of how my archbishop handled Secretary Sebelius when she was governor of Kansas. However, I just don’t think it should be seen as a magic bullet. It is but one part of a comprehensive approach.

  7. @Taylor, that is actually in part exactly why these canonical penalties should be enforced. While communion should not be used as a weapon, I believe it was Cardinal Wuerl who said that, the obligation to correct and set an example for the salvation of all souls is of paramount importance. That a canon law is not enforced, does not completely excuse the average Catholic, and more broadly even non-Catholics, is often blanketed under virtue ‘prudence’ in enforcing it. Prudence is a valid reason for suspending a just penalty, but given the three articles cited from the national catholic reporter in the blog post, I think Bishops really have to reevaluate exactly how prudent the decision to suspend the canonical penalty has been. That the Bishops have not been much more united on this front is one reason Kathleen Sebelius’ public censure has not had the proper effect on the broader community of US Catholics. It’s why her Bishop can be viewed and dismissed as an extremist, even though he is one of the only Bishops acting clearly within his authority under Canon law. That being said, don’t disobey the Bishops or slander them or whatever have you because they don’t enforce that canon in the way I or we think they should. Just encourage your bishop in an exhortive manner (not a condemning or patronizing rebuke) to reconsider his particular position on this canon. And pray for him, he is God’s anoited leader, given to you and me to govern us.

  8. Regarding Sibelius: It was actually a pretty slick maneuver he did. He preserved the Eucharist from profanation and he did not fire up her base with a formal excommunication. What a two-fer!

  9. To Joe and Fr. Andrew,

    I completely agree with you that they should not use the the statistic “98% of Catholic women use or have used contraception” to force coverage for all. However, I wonder what the Church would do in the case of a woman who has a severely debilitating condition (PCOS and endometriosis come to mind) whose only current medical treatment is hormonal therapy. If the women who work in Catholic charities, universities,etc. require hormonal treatment to be able to function in everyday life, would the Church cover these “contraceptives?” Or even sterilization when that would keep the woman from slowly dying of blood loss?

    98% is a pretty large statistic, but when you consider that between 25-35 percent of women suffer from maladies that require (based on the best advice of medical practitioners) hormonal therapy, it would reduce the illicit use of “contraceptives” by Catholics to 75% or less. Just a thought

  10. Can you help a brother get some clarification? I understand the position of the Roman Catholic church on this topic (you have made some great posts), and it make sense that they do not want to be forced into providing any thing that goes against the clear teaching. My one concern is for the people in these Roman Catholic institutions that are not RC. Are they unable to get birth control under the current insurance offered by the RC institution? The reality is that there are many non-Catholics that work in these institutions. I obviously chose the most socially accepted part of the debate, which is coverage for birth control for those that desire it. Does anyone know about these folks and the health insurance that they get?

  11. Maggie,

    As Pope Paul VI put it in para. 15 of Humanae Vitae, “the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.”

    It’s not the drugs themselves we’re against, but their use as contraception.

    Rev. Hans,

    Insurance coverage is handled locally, so it’s not as if there’s a single plan set for every one of the nations’ Catholic parishes, hospitals, and schools. Catholic employers don’t (or at least shouldn’t) offer health plans that cover contraception to their employees. Non-Catholic employees who join a Catholic institution should be aware that they’re joining a Catholic institution, and that there are certain things that the Church won’t pay for. If the individual wants to pay for those things out of his or her own pocket, that’s a separate matter.

    This came up recently with Belmont Abbey. The incoming administration discovered that the school’s health insurance covered abortion, contraception, and sterilization. The administration quickly put an end to this, only to be sued by the EEOC for (I kid you not) gender discrimination.



  12. The truth is that for decades now, the majority of Catholics have been ignoring the Church’s teaching that the use of contraceptives is mortally sinful. But if that were the only problem, the reaction would be understandable. It isn’t though. Even priests who accept that teaching rarely speak about it from the pulpit. Theologians and professors in Catholic colleges and universities who reject it are for the most part allowed to teach and write against it unmolested. The bishops have made no serious effort to counteract misperceptions about the teaching. They do not seem to think it urgent to correct the vast number of Catholics who flout a basic moral doctrine, the teaching and enforcement of which is the bishops’ special responsibility. How surprised should they be, then, when those hostile to the Church’s teaching judge that Catholics will “roll over” for policies like the one now issued by HHS? If Catholics and their leaders don’t seem to take the Church’s teaching on contraception very seriously, why should the Obama administration? This is the fruit of the poisonous tree of not standing up for the Church’s moral teaching whenever it is culturally uncomfortable. Don’t you agree?

  13. Joe,

    If insurance policies are handled by each of the local institutions, and allowances are made for hormonal therapy of “female reproductive maladies,” isn’t it possible that Church money is already being spent on contraception? Particularly if the line draw between what is therapeutic is left up to the woman in question and her doctor? I realize that I am splitting hairs here, but the potential for abuse, particularly by well-meaning doctors who know how the insurance system works, to abuse this allowance exits. It would be interesting to know what the numbers would reveal, but I doubt those would be publicly available.

  14. Maggie,

    What you’re describing sounds like insurance fraud, but yes, it probably has happened. Also, not every Church institution has been vigilant in making sure that their health plans don’t cover contraception. From what I’ve read, some Jesuit colleges (including Georgetown) cover contraception right now. That’s morally unacceptable, but it looks like it’s happened in the past and is happening now. All we can do now is try to undo the moral damage, and prevent the State from inflicting more.



  15. Father, thanks for a brilliant post! Your post is a great supplement to the articles by Jimmy Akin and Co. that I’ve been reading lately.

    However, I must say that I am not happy that you posted those three links to the National Catholic Reporter. I clicked on them, and five minutes later I was nearly frothing at the mouth at the sheer ignorance of and disrespect for the Church that the authors had. And the comments were even more pathetic. I really should know better by now; the Reporter is populated with nothing but heretics and fools. But curiosity unfortunately won out, and now I’m once again furious at the tripe that Jamie Manson and her ilk spew under the false appellative “Catholic”.

    It’s at times like this that I sometimes wonder whether Catholicism in America will survive. It just seems like there are SO MANY pickers and choosers who disregard the Magisterium and put their own selfish and subjective whims before the teachings of Christ and His Church.

    We need people to be EDUCATED in their faith. We need them to actually UNDERSTAND the things that the Church teaches, and most of all, we need people to understand the authority that the Church has as passed down by the apostles from God Himself.

    No doubt this is my tendency to focus on the bad and overlook the good (I have lots of problems with pessimism these days, unfortunately), but still. I can’t seem shake this feeling of bleakness. I’m praying about it, and I hope it goes away, but it’s still here for now.

    Oh dear. The National Catholic Reporter manages to bring out the absolute worst in me. Breath deeply, breath deeply…

  16. Joe,

    I don’t think that it would be considered fraud if the doctor reasonably believed that contraceptive/hormonal therapy were necessary. In my own experience, OB/GYN feel that these drugs are necessary for nearly all women whether they want to avoid acne, strong cramps, or PCOS.

    I am new to the Church so I am still trying to understand many of the teachings, but I don’t think that I would be the only person to think that it is hypocritical for certain Church purchased health care plans contraceptives, abortion, and sterilization are covered for Catholic and non-Catholic parties alike. In fact, I’m surprised that there isn’t more consistency in policy. Either the Church teaches that these things are illicit and works within the boundaries of the definition or it doesn’t. But if it doesn’t, what does that mean? That those of us who are trying to live the Catholic life are fooling ourselves?

  17. Maggie,

    I know that you addressed Joe, and I hope he does chime in, but I wanted to give a little more depth to what he quoted from Humanae Vitae (HV). Section 15 which Joe quoted needs to be properly understood. There are a couple important distinctions to make:

    1) Contraception can’t be the intended use of those means (infertility is not a happy bonus, it’s a tragic consequence)
    2) Some treatments that people try to put under this teaching of HV don’t apply since they are abortifacients (meaning conception takes place, but something like implantation isn’t possible because the treatment strips the endometrial lining). In that case, a life is created and destroyed. In such a case, abstinence should be practiced while there is a risk of abortion.

    The Principle of Double Effect is sometimes used to try to justify such treatments. Here’s a great article on the principle:

    The problem with an abortifacient is that it doesn’t meet the criteria of invoking that principle for at least two reasons. First, the intended effect of the treatment is not proportionate to the unintended evil side effect of the death of the child. Second, Double Effect can only be invoked when there are no other options. In most cases, there are other medical options (sometimes more trying) that can be sought that would avoid the use of an abortifacient (I’m no expert about this aspect, but there are great Catholic doctors out there doing wonders).

    Here’s another article that is a helpful walk through HV (and addresses section 15 specifically that Joe quoted):

    A more thorough discussion of this topic can be found here:

    It might seem a little overwhelming and technical, but the precision is important. Know you’re in my prayers.

    [I updated this comment for clarity]

  18. Maggie,

    I was referring specifically to the idea of a doctor prescribing drugs as contraception, but filing a claim with insurance saying they were prescribed for some other reason.

    But yes, non-abortificant birth control drugs can be prescribed for reasons other than birth control. And as the media is making a big show of, some Catholic universities do things contrary to the faith, like provide coverage for contraception.

    This is a reason to ensure that our universities live up to the Catholicism they claim to practice, not a reason to sell out the rest of the Church.



  19. Maggie,

    Mass today was celebrated by Cardinal Wuerl. During the announcements, he gave what was essentially a second homily, and about how making the Kingdom of God manifest on Earth (which is what we pray for in the Our Father) requires us to speak up as Catholics. I spoke to him very briefly afterwards, and asked him what we should do about Catholic institutions like Georgetown that have insurance coverage for contraception. He said, “Just keep talking. Keep talking.”

    I don’t know if it’s any consolation, but I thought it was nice to know that the Cardinal is aware that our problems aren’t just with the Administration, but that there are problems within that we need to address, as well.



  20. “…only to be sued by the EEOC for (I kid you not) gender discrimination.”-Joe Heschmeyer

    Small but growing numbers of people are just now starting to wake up to the realization that there’s a lot of feel-good laws that must be swept into the dustbin of history.

    Just a reminder, the original sex discrimination law was, if I recall correctly, the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Feminist Alice Paul lobbied to have that slipped into the bill along with the federal prohibitions on racial discrimination that was its original purpose. Thus began the confused equivocation of race and sex in America’s public discourse about civil rights, a confusion that has spawned the present day perversions of marriage by kooks who claim that refusal to pervert the definition of marriage to same-sex marriage is comparable to a prohibition on mixed-race marriages.

    It’s all interconnected.

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