By Frank Wessling
Religious liberty is not an exciting topic for most people most of the time. We can be grateful for this. Americans are free to go to church, to pray, or to debate religious questions in public, so there doesn’t seem to be any danger that affects us.
But threats to our liberties seldom begin as frontal assaults. The subtle carving out of a piece where we pay little attention or have lost feeling is where danger begins. We don’t feel anything personally, so we aren’t motivated to do anything. A quiet erosion of our integrity begins.
Some groups are hypersensitive about their freedom and aggressively push to protect it: the gun lobby is notorious for this. The Catholic Church needs a membership now with some of that sensitivity, but for a much better cause.
A federal government rule proposed as part of the new health care law intended to expand coverage would reduce the definition of a “religious employer” down to the operation of a church itself or formally religious institutes such as monasteries, seminaries, retreat houses and other agencies serving internal Church interests. They would be exempt from a new requirement to provide contraceptive services and sterilization in employee health insurance.
Catholic social service agencies such as Catholic Charities and hospitals would not be considered “religious employers” because they serve a broad public and do not make Catholicism a condition in their hiring. They would have to provide contraception coverage in their health insurance, with no co-pays, or pay an annual fine. Catholic colleges may also be affected by the proposed new rule.
The formal teaching of the Catholic Church makes contraception a sin because it violates the integrity of significant human acts. Thus, our Catholic institutions such as St. Ambrose University in Davenport and Mercy Medical Center in Centerville would be forced to act against the teaching of the Church.
The bishops of the United States ask us to stand in solidarity against this attempt to squeeze us out of public ministry and into the private confines of the church building; against an effort to make the Catholic conscience in sexual matters impotent in public life.
The Catholic Church is not a religious sect withdrawing from the world. It is a body fully engaged in the world with a message and ministry of service to all humanity. When we care for the sick, the orphan, the immigrant, we do it as the body of Christ in history expressing divine love. There is deep significance in our activity even as it looks like mere social service that anyone might offer.
The United States is supposed to be a regime of respect for the exercise of that deep significance, that religious inspiration – especially when it emerges as compassionate care for the needs of people. The meaning of “religious employers” in that proposed rule of the Department of Health and Human Services should be expanded. Or an alternative way of letting employees access contraceptive services might be offered.
Some states already have such a feature in their laws. Hawaii is an example. Religious employers there who do not offer contraceptive services in their health insurance must give prospective employees notice of that fact and describe ways they can get such coverage on their own at modest cost. Federal regulations could follow this model.
Send a message to Senators Grassley and Harkin. Send a message to our congressmen. Send a message to President Obama. The proposed HHS rule reaches too far, and unnecessarily, to help women gain self-determination in their lives. To find the member of congress who represents your district visit http://www.house.gov.
Contact information for Sen. Charles Grassley is: 135 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510 (202) 224-3744; www.grassley.senate.gov/contact.cfm.
Contact information for Sen. Tom Harkin: 731 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510, (202) 224-3254; www.harkin.senate.gov/contact.cfm.
President Obama’s website address is: www.whitehouse.gov/administration/president-obama
A note on what may look like hypocrisy to some: The fact, and it is a fact, that most Catholics ignore, or don’t even know about, the Church’s prohibition of contraception is beside the point. We also ignore rules against lying and cheating. The proposed insurance rule is against our Church, against our corporate name, against our home, against a centering point of our identity. We need to speak up and express our share of a corporate conscience that will not accept being violated.