I have followed the posture of the current administration toward the Catholic Church with some interest, ever since I first got wind of the suit against Belmont Abbey for refusing to provide insurance coverage that included sterilization. This was in 2009—a short time into the current administration—and the complaint by the EEOC alleged that in failing to provide for contraceptives, Belmont Abbey was in violation of Title VII—designed to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex. It was an early bellwether of the current crisis and went largely unremarked except for a few voices sounding the alarm. Not only did it foreshadow the aggressiveness that the Obama Administration would have in coming after the Catholic Church in the public square, it gave a hint of the arguments that would be used.
It’s worth paying attention to those arguments, for they have great significance, not only in how this will play out in terms of national policy but also in terms of the way the Church sees itself. The EEOC complaint against Belmont Abbey stemmed from its position as employer and took the posture that the Church when it pays people to work for it, is no different from any other employer in the marketplace. In short—this administration draws a sharp line between employment—which it clearly considers simply a secular contractual arrangement—and exercise of religion.
Visit the comboxes on the blogs dealing with this and you’ll see the same thing. Time after time, the argument put forth is this: The Church is entitled to deference in its own sphere of worship, but when it enters the public arena and engages in secular pursuits, it should be treated just like any other employer.
Read that again, carefully. In short, the argument is that the Christian life must be lived out only within the confines of the houses of worship—any activity outside the parochial world is automatically secular. The public square is one in which the secular—not the religious—holds sway.
If it were not such a desperate situation, this ignorant premise would be laughable. The Church—the Catholic Church—is responsible for the establishment of schools, hospitals, orphanages, colleges and everything the modern world thinks of a “social service” agencies. Read properly in the context of history, even our own brief national history, these institutions have, until only very recent times—been religious, not secular, in nature. Until recently it was understood that religious people lived out their religious lives publicly, sometimes in providing schools, hospitals, and social services that other people needed. That these were religious services—and that they were valuable and to be encouraged—was a given.
How is it that a good portion of the modern world thinks otherwise? How is it that well-educated people can assert, with force and with some credibility, that the HHS mandate seeks only to regulate the Church when it seeks to act in a secular capacity?
Some of this, I think, is part of a well-calculated plan by what Father Barron terms liberal totalitarians to squeeze the Church out of the public square, making people dependent on the government instead of the Church. In this regard, the clash we are witnessing is a clash of two religions: the Christian faith, most particularly as embodied in the Catholic Church, and the religion of Radical Secularism. It’s no accident that this attack occurs in a time when radical, aggressive Atheism is also on the rise.
But we Christians—we Catholics—have to bear some of the blame. When I came into the Catholic Church, I was astonished to find so many of my fellow Catholics so apathetic about the joys and riches of my newly-embraced faith. I recall vividly that one woman friend, somewhat exasperated by my convert’s enthusiasm, told me: You have to remember, we were taught that all we had to do was come to mass every week, and that was all we had to do.
Balderdash. That may be what some of you cradle Catholics heard, but growing up in the same time and outside the faith, I knew the Catholic faith was much, much more than Sunday worship. I was delivered by nursing sisters in a Catholic hospital—the only one in town. I saw Catholic friends who saved their milk money to send it off to care for African orphans. I saw priests and sisters put their lives on the line to help end segregation in the South and racism everywhere. Those of us who were stuck in the second-rate school system of my hometown wanted dearly to be able to go to the (integrated even before it was mandated) Catholic schools. I knew that being Catholic meant being very, very active in the world. And I admired it, even then.
Somehow, the world at large has gotten the idea that the Christian faith--Catholic faith-- is now a matter of mere intellect and freedom of thought and Sunday worship alone, of being free to go to mass and take Good Friday off and make the sign of the cross in public without getting attacked.
Balderdash again, and this time, shame on us for letting that happen.
The Catholic faith is not just about being able to go to mass in peace. It’s about being fed in the mass to take Christ out into the word where the worship of Him really begins. The mass—source and summit of our faith-- calls us together as Act I of a great drama—the feeding and preparation of the faithful. Act II is taking that faith into the world and making it—making Christ—present. It’s important that the world understand that in operating hospitals and clinics and schools and social service agencies, the Church is not intruding on the secular world—we are simply continuing our worship. We are—in the language of the constitution—exercising our faith. Hospitals and schools and charities are not a handy sideline to the faith—they are the faith.
It is not the character of an at that determines worship—nor is it strictly the arena. It is the intent, the purpose, the end to which it is directed. We simply cannot be Catholics without engaging in taking our faith into the world as we are commanded. The constitution guarantees us freedom of exercise of religion—not mere freedom of worship. It guarantees that the state—that would be HHS in this case—does not get to define what exercise of religion is. That, after all, is what the Founding Fathers fled in England—the state dictating what religion could be. And Catholics caught the hard edge of that sword as well—ask the recusant families in the time of Elizabeth I.
The same act can be completely different in quality, depending on who performs it. Feeding the poor can be a calculated act of political expediency or it can be a communion with Christ. Caring for the sick can be a means to achieve great profits or it can be fulfilling the mandate of Christ to love one another. A school can be a place of social indoctrination or a place of discovering one’s unique, precious and unrepeatable place in the world, according to God’s will. Any program, any institution can be secular or religious—and the activities each engages in can be very similar. It is the actor, not the act, that makes the difference; the motive, not the activity.
Catholics have a long tradition (since Pentecost, in fact) of worshiping God in the corporal acts of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, giving shelter to the homeless, visiting the sick, ransoming the captive, burying the dead. Roll in two of the spiritual works of mercy (instructing the ignorant and consoling the afflicted) and you have a pretty good description of the activities in the public square that the HHS mandate is designed to squelch.
If this administration succeeds in forcing this mandate, it will be because we Catholics have forgotten that worship isn’t just inside the four walls of our parishes and we’ve let others forget it as well. It will be because we have forgotten to exercise our faith personally. It will because we have forgotten that the dismissal of the mass is to send us as Catholics out do to those works of mercy that too few of us can even name any more. It will be because we’ve bought into the idea that participation in public life means acquiescence with secular agenda. It will be because we—like my friend—will have bought into the idea that all we have to do is go to mass every week and we are fine.
It will be because we’ve let the other side—even the other side that wishes to represent itself as Catholic when it is at variance with the teachings of the Church-- control the language and the argument. It will be because we lost sight of the real mandate--the mandate that we share the good news with all the world. All of it. Not just the part that HHS deems proper.
This isn’t about just about conscience—a word with little or no meaning in the public square. It’s certainly not about women’s health. It’s not about access to health care or discrimination. It’s not about a payment shell game that tries to trick inattentive Catholics into thinking that they have distanced themselves from participation in grave evil when they have not. And it matters not one bit whether a majority of Catholics or anyone else agrees that provision of contraception and sterilization and abortion services by employers is a good idea.
It’s about whether we Catholics are willing to stand up and demand that this administration honor constitutionally-given right to live out our faith as we see fit. We are presented with two incompatible mandates, one from HHS and one from Christ.
It's up to us to choose which one we will support and act accordingly.