Pope Francis has been receiving a great deal of attention in recent months, most recently because of some of his judgments on economic challenges to human dignity and the common good in his recent apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.”
Less attention has been paid to his statements on religious freedom, the right to life, and the importance of consistent Christian witness in the world.
Religious freedom, Pope Francis said, “includes ‘the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public.’” What this does not mean, he continues, is “privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches . . . This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism.”
One “new form of discrimination” has been the Health and Human Services mandate forcing companies and organizations to provide abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraceptives to their employees despite their deep religious objections. More than 84 lawsuits filed by 200 plaintiffs have been quietly making their way through the courts, and quiet too has been the media’s coverage of this issue.
One exception has been the lawsuit by Hobby Lobby in a case that has already made its way to the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby is a for-profit company with Christian owners who provide excellent healthcare benefits — including contraceptive and sterilization coverage — for their 13,000 employees.
Because they will not pay for abortion-inducing drugs, however, HHS threatens them with fines of $100 a day per beneficiary, which could total hundreds of millions of dollars a year. To put this in perspective, Hobby Lobby could cancel its insurance, drive its employees on to the exchanges, and face fines of only $2,000 per employee per year after the first thirty employees, a massive savings over what they are now spending for healthcare. This disparity of punishment is revealing of the ideology that is driving the HHS mandate.
Less noted has been a recent preliminary injunction granted to the Catholic dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie in their lawsuits against the HHS mandate. In rejecting the government’s case, Judge Arthur J. Schwab of the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania said he was asked to decide whether “the government will be permitted to sever the Catholic Church into two parts (i.e., worship and faith, and ‘good works’) — in other words, whether the government will be successful in restricting the right to the free exercise of religion as set forth in the First Amendment to a right to worship only.”
The ruling was a sound defeat for the government. The government must also have been disappointed with recent news that the University of Notre Dame decided to renew its lawsuit, originally dismissed by a federal court as being premature, against the mandate.
Having invited President Obama to speak at its 2009 commencement despite widespread opposition by both bishops and pro-life Catholics, the university can hardly be accused of an ideological animus against the administration.
In its 43-page complaint, however, Notre Dame eloquently objected to being put in the position of causing scandal because of the mandate: “Notre Dame's Catholic mission — particularly its mission as an educator of youth in a Catholic tradition — dictates that it avoid facilitation or affiliation with objectionable products, services, practices, and mores that are inextricably intertwined with the law challenged in this case. Because the U.S. government mandate requires Notre Dame pay for, facilitate access to, and/or become entangled in the provision of products, services, practices, and speech that that are contrary to its sincerely held religious beliefs, the mandate would require Notre Dame to commit scandal, which in Catholic theology is defined as leading by words or example others to engage in wrong doing.”
It is a scandal, the university argues, that the government seeks to coerce Notre Dame to participate in a program whose central financial premise of “cost neutrality” through reductions in the number of childbirths is “antithetical to its sincerely held Catholic religious beliefs.” But Notre Dame also objects to the government requiring “Notre Dame to facilitate and appear to endorse practices that Catholic doctrine considers morally wrong. See, e.g., Advertisements of Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, including one depicting female youth next to male youth and stating ‘OMG he's hot! Let's hope he's as easy to get as this birth control. My health insurance covers the pill, which means all I have to worry about is getting him between the covers.’”
One of the many ironies of the HHS mandate is that if not for the administration’s heavy-handed assault on Catholic consciences, it would have benefited from the church’s historical support of healthcare for the uninsured and underinsured.
While it is unlikely, Catholics continue to hope that the administration heals itself of its own ideological myopia.
Gregory R. Erlandson is the president of the Publishing Division for Our Sunday Visitor, one of the largest Catholic publishing companies in the United States. Erlandson is also an adviser on the U.S. Bishops’ Communications Committee, and has been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Read more reports from him — Click Here Now.
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