This past August, the controversial Department of Health and Human Services mandate regarding contraception services and abortion was put into full effect. With it came a silencing of the voice of religious institutions to be against something they deem immoral and wrong and forcing them, through the threat of penalty and the full force of law, to participate in these things they deem immoral and wrong.
The mandate requires businesses — including religious institutions such as Catholic hospitals, charities and universities like St John’s — that provide health insurance to offer plans that cover contraception and abortion services and other procedures and therapies that are antithetical to Catholic religious thought and teaching.
Whether one has a favorable or unfavorable attitude on contraception is an issue for another article; I’d like to bring to the surface the new development that has reared its ugly head in this mandate — a government that believes it has the legitimate position to force religious institutions to do things against their religious code, and justifies it by defining religiosity for every religiously affiliated institution.
Our own government, it seems, can deem if our Christian, Muslim and Jewish institutions are religious enough, and according to the degree of religiosity can give or take away religious exemptions.
The basic premise is simple: the contraception mandate is an action of a government that has overstepped its legitimacy and boundaries, and is actively pursuing control of religious activity in order to meet its own interest. It is a suppression of religious freedom and therefore an attack on the dignity of the human person.
The government tried to legitimize their actions by issuing a narrow “ministerial exception.” The ministerial exemption is a legal formula that describes the special freedoms religious institutions enjoy — essentially a protection of religious worship, speech and action. The contraception mandate has narrowly interpreted this ministerial exemption so that only houses of worship are “religious” enough to receive protection. Catholic hospitals, Catholic universities and other Catholic institutions are apparently not up to par with what the government deems religious.
It is inconceivable to believe that our government seeks to tell us what is religious enough; it is inconceivable to believe that our government has the audacity to say that the works that Catholic hospitals, universities and other institutions perform is strictly secular and that they are not religious enough — further, it is inconceivable for the church to let this stand.
We must reaffirm what our work truly is – the life of Christ being poured out into the world. This pouring out of Christ’s life is the sole reason for our existence as Catholic institutions — the loving of God and of neighbor through the action of the Catholic university’s teaching, guiding, and admonition and the Catholic hospital’s administering of healthcare to the bodily and materially impoverished is a religious experience through and through. This is our fulfillment of Christ’s request — to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned.
This work is our living of the beatitudes; to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to be meek, to be merciful, to be clean of heart. The fact that I hope is seen is that we are religious – and no government has legitimate power to tell us otherwise or force us to do things that contradict our religious beliefs.
The government has the power to have an interest in expanding contraception – but it is the responsibility of government to accommodate religious beliefs and to use means that least burden religious practice when pursuing these interests. We are not being accommodated because the religious identity of our institutions has been ignored.
We have the freedom of religion in this country. Let no present government administration or powerful lawyers dupe us into thinking otherwise. This argument has been presented to change hearts and minds — the law for now is already in full effect. My reminder to everyone is that laws can be undone. As Americans, we are called to uphold the constitution and to uphold the dignity of our citizens. As a Catholic university, St. John’s call is to preach the gospel, live religiously and be children of Christ in season and out of season. Now is the supreme moment, and it is up to us to meet this moment with creativity and firm resistance.