Thursday, February 2, 2012

American or Catholic? Why must we choose?

Since January 20th, when the Obamination confirmed the HHS rule heavily restricting religious exemptions to the new health insurance requirements, the outcry from American Catholics has been overwhelming in its unity.  Even Sean Michael Winters wrote in his Fishwrap column, “They have punched Sr. Carol Keehan and Fr. Jenkins and many other Catholics who have taken shots for this Administration in the nose.”

On CatholicVote, Tom Peters the American Papist has been keeping a running tally of bishops who have written and spoken out against the HHS ruling (135 out of 187 dioceses that aren’t currently sede vacante as of January 30).  My friend Stacy Trasancos has written a self-critical piece arguing that, by not educating Catholic doctors on the problems and perils of contraceptives, Catholic women have been part of the problem (and can be part of the solution by being more proactive … ugh, I said that word).  Fellow devil-dog Frank Weathers has gotten a petition at WhiteHouse.gov going that has collected 11,376 signatures (out of 13,624 needed by February 27 — have you signed yet?).

Indeed, as the USCCB blog notes, the amazing unity this outrage has prompted is “a true ‘here comes everybody’ moment.”  But Louie Verrecchio at Catholic Lane sees “far more to lament than to applaud in this situation, beginning with the fundamental question of Catholic identity that it naturally begs.”

If current events indicate anything at all it’s that we really need to take a step back and ask ourselves who we are. Are we Catholics first and Americans second, or vice versa?


Verrecchio’s first task is to lambaste the bishops for treating the issue in a secularist fashion.  His indictment:

[1] "Instead of claiming recourse to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as one might reasonably expect of the Successors to the Apostles, many of our bishops have approached the matter almost exclusively from a civil liberties angle; busily citing the First Amendment of the Constitution.
[2] "Rather than decrying the objective immorality of such acts as contraception and abortion (regardless of who practices them) and rejecting them as offenses against God and His Divine Law, most bishops are expressing outrage, not on the Lord’s behalf, but on man’s behalf as a violation of personal conscience.
[3] "Rather than chastising our leaders for exceeding the limits of their power by commanding that which is contrary to the laws of nature and the will of God, they are criticizing the government for infringing upon 'America’s first freedom.'"

Verrecchio makes the additional good point that the Obamination is counting on the self-interest of the majority of Catholics to carry the day and isn’t too concerned about those who take the Church’s teachings on sexual morality seriously.  Personally, I think that’s Obama pushing his luck, because while it’s true many Catholics don’t have a problem with insurance covering their condoms and pills, some of these folks — as well as quite a few non-Catholics — are fully capable of seeing the danger in such a trespass on religious freedom.  But I don’t think Verrecchio is wrong in seeing such a calculation.

All Verrecchio writes is true and interesting.  It also misses the point by a country mile.

From our earliest days, we’ve faced some tension between rendering to Caesar and rendering to God … tension as in “worshipping in catacombs and being eaten by lions”.  This tension had largely abated during the Middle Ages, but never went truly away (consider Henry II and St. Thomas Becket), and came roaring back with Henry VIII and the persecution of the English martyrs.

Religious freedom as originally conceived was supposed to be a “win-win scenario” for both Church and State.  The State didn’t have the hassle of settling doctrines and placating hierarchs; the Church didn’t have the interference of bureaucrats and functionaries in its daily life.  But most of all, it took religious requirements out of play — you didn’t have to be an Anglican/Episcopalian to vote, hold office, sign petitions or speak on the important issues of the day. 

For Catholics living in a predominantly Protestant country, freedom of religion means that “Catholic-American” is not an oxymoronThis is the concept of “freedom of religion” for which tens and even hundreds of thousands of Catholic men died in battlefields both foreign and domestic: that we should not have to choose whether to be Catholic or American, that we could be both.

But while the HHS rules targets Catholics in specific, we’re not all that far past the SCOTUS decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC,[1] in which the Obamination argued for a very heavily restricted interpretation of the title “minister” and even for doing away with the “ministerial exception”.  Another way to put it is that the Obamination is pushing a theory of “freedom of worship” in which religion begins and ends at the church door.  Under such a construction, cathedrals, synagogues, temples and mosques would be little more than catacombs built to code.

This may be everything progressives and secularists who desire “freedom from religion” desire — a “freedom of worship” which shuts social conservatives out of the public square.  But the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee “freedom of worship”; it guarantees freedom of religion, including “the free exercise thereof”.

So while I respect Louie Verrecchio’s opinion, the fact remains that the bishops are exactly right to pitch this fight in terms of our Constitutional liberties rather than as an argument against contraception.  The fact is, the Obamination doesn’t care why we hold contraception to be wrong.  As far as they’re concerned, the rest of the nation doesn’t have a problem with contraception; in a hideous political irony, a faction that’s dedicated the last forty years to squelching majority rule suddenly finds some value in it.

The tragedy of St. Thomas More is that he was forced to choose between loyalty to his king and loyalty to his Church.  But that choice shouldn’t have been necessary.  Neither should we have to face such a choice.


[1] 565 U.S. ____.