The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) fired another shot in the expanding war on health care and their efforts to redefine protections granted for religious liberties.
The USCCB issued a “call to action” calling for a “Fortnight for Freedom”. During the two week period from June 21 to July 4 to focus “all the energies the Catholic community can muster” for religious liberty. This includes a promise not to abide by any laws that come into conflict with those beliefs, such as providing health benefits to employees in a non-discriminatory fashion.
So no matter how the Supreme Court rules, the Bishops plan to ignore the law either way.
It’s important to remember that the majority of practicing Catholics diverge from the leadership on this issue. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, issued the following statement:
“The bishops have been pursuing the religious liberty theme for some time now. They set up their ad hoc committee in 2011 and convinced the pope that this was a major issue in American politics when they met with him in January. Their strategy is twofold: they have sought to redefine religious liberty so that it is limited to policies and issues that they support, and in order for them to get their way, they are happy to deny the religious liberty of those who wish to be free from the dictates of the US bishops.
“The bishops’ idea of ‘freedom’ means that employers, and not medical professionals, should choose which safe, preventive, legal medications and procedures their employees can access—and which they can’t. This means, for example, that without shouldering unreasonable expense, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of women would not be able to use family planning to decide when and whether to become pregnant or even to protect their health.
“The bishops’ idea of ‘religious liberty’ proposes that one narrow interpretation of one religious tradition should be allowed to run roughshod over the religious beliefs of every single American. The ruling from the Department of Health and Human Services on contraception addresses a pressing public health issue: protecting women’s health. The bishops have failed to convince Catholics in the pews to follow their prohibitions on contraception. Now, they want the government to grant them the legal right to require each of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to set aside our own guaranteed freedom from government-sanctioned religious interference in our lives. This is a strange definition of the ‘common good’—a central Catholic belief. The bishops’ concept of religious liberty means they would get the liberty to deny ours.
“The bishops’ statement argues that their consciences are being violated by the government. This misuse of the term conscience may be their most disingenuous deviation from common understanding. Catholics believe that each person has a conscience, an inviolable and personal inner core that informs our decision making and compels each of us to act in the way that we have decided is morally correct. Whether in religion or in public life, we all understand the notion of conscientious objection—sometimes people of good will cannot, in good conscience, just ‘follow orders.’ But, in the face of these widely accepted principles, the bishops are trying to find a work-around. They are asserting that a hospital, a university and an HMO all have a conscience that can be offended by offering the healthcare coverage guaranteed to all American employees. In the bishops’ view, their consciences, or even a wholly imaginary institutional conscience, trump that of the individual, and they want special exemptions written into law to prove it.
“Religious freedom is an expansive rather than a restrictive idea. It has two sides, freedom of religion and freedom from religion. It is not about telling people what they can and cannot believe or practice, but rather about respecting an individual’s right to follow his or her own conscience in religious beliefs and practices, as well as in moral decision making. The protections we put in place to preserve religious freedom do not—and should not—be considered to permit religious institutions or individuals to obstruct or coerce the exercise of another’s conscience.”
The leadership of the Catholic Church is embracing policies and driving actions that totally disregard the important history of anti-poverty and social justice aims of so much of Catholicism. But without a significant change in that leadership there is no way the Church changes course which means these battle lines are only going to grow more entrenched in the coming months and years.
Photo from Keith Allison via flickr.