Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Thoughts on America, Freedom and Catholicism

Introduction: The Problem

The most disputed issue in America today is over the issue of freedom.  The target of this dispute is the Catholic Church and reason for this debate is over the recent government mandate that all employers must pay for contraceptive and abortifacient drugs unless that employer exclusively hires and serves co-religionists.

Since faithful Catholics believe that contraceptives and abortion are intrinsically evil acts (that is, can never be considered good regardless of intention), they believe they cannot participate in these acts either directly (by distributing contraceptives or performing abortions) or indirectly (paying for these things), this mandate by the government is seen as forcing Catholic institutions to do something which God forbids, and therefore they must not do regardless of what the government decrees.

15 The king of Egypt told the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was called Shiphrah and the other Puah,16 “When you act as midwives for the Hebrew women and see them giving birth, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she may live.”
17 The midwives, however, feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt had ordered them, but let the boys live.
(Exodus 1)

Moreover, since Catholics believe that they are called to help all in need regardless of whether they are Catholic or not (see Matt 25:31-46), it is not an option for them to limit the care provided by their institutions to Catholics alone (see Matthew 5:46)… to act such would be to disobey the command of our Lord.

Thus, if the government persists in this mandate, the only way the Catholic Church can be faithful to God is to defy the state – which will sooner or later result in some sort of repercussions (fines, confiscations, prosecutions) which will eventually shut down these Catholic institutions.  Thus the Catholic bishops of America feel called to speak out against this unjust and coercive legislation.

Church Authority: Real and Perceived

The opponents of the Church take advantage of the widespread ignorance about the Church.  Many believe that the violent and autocratic culture of the 16th and 17th centuries was mandated by the teachings of the Catholic Church and that the Church is by nature a coercive, power hungry group which is by nature contrary to the American concept of freedom.  Thus, Catholics are portrayed as"forcing" people to comply with "archaic" rules.

The problem is, such views are untrue.  Nobody is forced to remain a Catholic.  If Nancy Pelosi were to formally leave the Catholic faith tomorrow, the magisterium would not put a death sentence on her.  Rather, we believe that God Himself will judge us all.  Vatican II teaches:

Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved. (Lumen Gentium #14)


All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged. (ibid)

So, the only powers the Church possesses is the claim to be the Church established by Christ with the authority given by Christ (see Matt 16:18-19, Matt 18:17-18).  If what the Catholic Church claims about herself is true, then what she teaches should be taken seriously.  If one does not believe this to be true, then why remain a Catholic to begin with?

The Constitution and the Bishops' Appeal

Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions, if these be worthless. For not only does sound reason direct us to refuse the guidance of those who did or taught anything wrong, but it is incumbent on the lover of truth, by all means, and if death be threatened, even before his own life, to choose to do and say what is right. Do you, then, since ye are called pious and philosophers, guardians of justice and lovers of learning, give good heed, and hearken to my address; and if ye are indeed such, it will be manifested. For we have come, not to flatter you by this writing, nor please you by our address, but to beg that you pass judgment, after an accurate and searching investigation, not flattered by prejudice or by a desire of pleasing superstitious men, nor induced by irrational impulse or evil rumours which have long been prevalent, to give a decision which will prove to be against yourselves. For as for us, we reckon that no evil can be done us, unless we be convicted as evil-doers, or be proved to be wicked men; and you, you can kill, but not hurt us.

(First Apology of Justin Martyr, Chapter 2)

In the Second Century AD, when Christianity was illegal, St. Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) wrote to the Emperor (Antonius Pius), appealing to the Empire to treat Christianity with justice.  In this defense of the Church, he appealed to the standards the Emperor and his associates held important: To behave honorably and justly and not to condemn without learning the truth of the matter.

Likewise, the bishops today, in speaking out to the fact that this mandate is unjust are making a similar appeal.  If one holds to the ideals of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they cannot violate these simply because the Catholic belief is unpopular today.  The bishops do recognize that most Americans don't recognize the fact that truth is never outdated – that most Americans feel they can reject a true moral statement simply on the grounds that it is old.  Therefore, they make an appeal to what most Americans still do recognize – even if they regard Catholicism with antipathy – that if America wants to consider herself a nation based on freedom, she must apply those freedoms to Catholics.

The First Amendment, in full, reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

What is listed in the First Amendment are fundamental rights that the government may not interfere with.  The government may not restrict us from doing what is right, speaking out on what is right, nor to assemble and peacefully challenge the government to do what is right.  In this case, we can see the bishops are exercising their First Amendment rights in opposing the Obama administration mandate, while the Obama administration is violating the First Amendment by hindering the free exercise of the Catholic faith to aid those in need without violating what God requires of us.

Fundamentally Distorting the Issue

Proponents of the mandate have made all sorts of appeals to support the demands of the government.  The bishops are accused of trying to use the government to impose Catholicism on non-Catholics.  This is false – so much so that those who repeat it are either grossly ignorant or are guilty of slander/libel.

The Catholic Church is not seeking to force other institutions to accept Catholic beliefs.  Yes the American embrace of contraception and abortion is a grave evil for everyone and must be opposed and, yes, the Catholic Church seeks to appeal to people of good will to understand why these things are gravely evil.  However, if the Catholic Bishops were to have their way and the Obama administration were to admit they were in the wrong (rescinding the mandate), there would be no change in what the non-Catholic can legally do.

What the proponents of the mandate are insisting is that Catholic institutions financially support what they believe is evil.

(Picture source: Catholic Vote.org)

Those who are so irresponsible as to view sex as recreation and refuse to recognize the fact that the sexual act is one designed to bring forth new human life insist that they be free to engage in this activity freely – but those who think differently should be forced to subsidize their behavior.  It should be clear that it is not the bishops seeking to impose anything on others.  It is others that are trying to impose things on the Catholic Church.

The argument that the Catholic Church is forcing their views on non-Catholic employees is also false.  If one works for a religious institution which holds different values than what the individual believes, the individual should recognize that their motivations and views are different.  I wouldn't expect a restaurant owned by Muslims to provide me with a wine list or a Jewish deli to make me a ham sandwich on my lunch break even though my Christian values permit me to make use of wine and pork.  If I wanted the wine or the ham so much, I'd go elsewhere for lunch and not insist my non-Christian employer provide something they believe to be wrong.

That's being respectful.  Of course, I believe the Jew or the Muslim should accept Christ and perhaps through prayer and dialogue they might through the grace of God – but I wouldn't try to force them to do something they believed would put them in defiance of God.


I don't want to give the impression that everything is relative of course.  Catholics believe that their teaching on sexuality is not merely true for them, but that it is absolutely true for all people at all times, and it is certainly something that should be explained to others so they accept it freely.  However, even those who deny the Catholic teaching or the authority of the Church should recognize that the Catholic Church has the same freedoms under the constitution that other groups do, and that we have the right to practice our faith without the government forcing us to do what we believe God condemns.

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