Henry IX?

The Obama Administration is the most anti-religious and anti-Catholic presidential administration in the history of the Republic.

Last week the Administration released health care regulations which will force Catholic schools and hospitals to provide, free of charge, sterilizations and contraceptives, including some “contraceptives” which induce abortions.  These regulations come on the heels of a Supreme Court decision in which the Administration’s lawyers pushed a line of legal reasoning, which, if followed to its logical conclusions, would have allowed the government to decide whom churches hire and fire, possibly even whom churches ordain.  Fortunately the Court recognized that if the Administration’s argument had prevailed, the First Amendment wouldn’t be worth the faded parchment on which it is written, and rejected it—unanimously.

Toward the beginning of his presidency, President Obama and his subordinates had the tendency to describe nearly every policy they implemented as “historic” or “unprecedented.”  A bit self-congratulatory perhaps, but certain aspects of this presidency no doubt made it worthy of those adjectives.  And now, sadly, President Obama has made history in another way:  no president has ever undermined the First Amendment’s promise of religious liberty in the ways President Barack Obama has.

Right now, the Catholic Church, because of its teachings on the morality of contraception and abortion, is bearing the brunt of the Administration’s assault, but undermining the principles of religious liberty and freedom of conscience threatens the rights of those whose beliefs put them entirely at odds with Catholicism.  If the government can force us to violate our consciences today, what is to protect your conscience when the regime changes?

What is unprecedented and disturbing is not whether or not President Obama personally feels any particular animosity toward the Catholic Church; remarks made off camera during his first presidential campaign suggest contempt for religious believers rather than animosity.  In any case, we have had politicians who have engaged in much more explicitly and vehemently anti-Catholic rhetoric before; when Al Smith, the Catholic governor of New York, ran for president in 1928, the Ku Klux Klan infamously burned crosses along the route of the presidential train.

Nor is the title of this post meant to suggest that the President’s personal life is anything as sordid as that of the self-declared Supreme Head of the Church in England.  But it’s that title, which Henry VIII bestowed on himself for, um, dynastic reasons, which hints at the principle that President Obama’s Administration is undermining.  And I do mean for the invocation of the English tyrant and the bloody persecution that followed to remind us of how fundamental and inviolable that principle ought to be.

Simply put, the principle is this:  the State ought not to interfere in the internal governance of the Church.  Catholic institutions should be run by the Catholic Church, not by the Department of Health and Human Services.  Our values may not be the same as the President’s values, but he has no right to force us to violate our consciences when we disagree.

Don’t be fooled into thinking the issue at stake is contraception per se.  Even liberal commentators such as Sean Michael Winters writing in the ultra-liberal National Catholic Reporter have recognized that the issue of conscience goes well beyond contraception.  In many ways, Team Obama’s political strategy vis-à-vis the Catholic Church thus far has been divide and conqueror and, no doubt, in weighing the politics of this decision a similar calculation was in play.  It is no secret that Catholics are divided on the issue of contraception and that our division is a point of weakness.

But the point at stake is that it is not for Barack Obama to settle the issue for us.  The Church must work this one out on our own, which includes the question of what the Church’s teachings mean for our Catholic institutions.  What is perhaps most arrogant in the Administration’s decision is the presumption it has taken in defining what does and does not count as a Catholic school or hospital.  That’s not for you to decide, Mr. President; you are not the pope.  That’s the Successor of Peter, not the Successor of George.

And the Pope—the real one, Benedict—could not be clearer about the gravity of what is threatened by this Administration’s policies:

In the light of these considerations, it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.

The mainstream media will be, at best, indifferent to this issue.  (If there were any doubt about media objectivity or the startlingly low level to which our political discourse has sunk, just take a look a the cover of this week’s Newsweek.)  But no issue strikes more to the heart of human dignity than religious liberty, and on this the Church must be united.  The unity that has begun to emerge already is encouraging, coming from both left and right, from coast to coast (see LA’s Cardinal Mahoney on the subject as well as New York’s Archbishop Dolan).

We are probably not at the point yet where Catholics will lose their lives, but such a moment could easily come within my lifetime.  There is already an undercurrent of hatred, a violence in the rhetoric of many of the Church’s contemporary opponents (think of Daniel Dennett advocating the “re-education” of children against the wishes of religious parents), that is only likely to get worse.

We are, however, quite literally at the point where if individuals and institutions choose to follow the Church’s teachings, they will be fined, lose their jobs, and have to surrender property to the State.  We have been here before; these were tactics of the English persecution of the Church too.  Not everyone may agree on the wisdom of all the Church’s teachings, but all should recognize that State coercion in the religious sphere is wrong.

On the rights of conscience we cannot afford to be divided.  This is our Thomas More moment.


22 Responses to Henry IX?

  1. Tom Piatak says:


  2. bill bannon says:

    Can the Church have in its institutions…no group medical coverage and let every worker buy his own? That way the Church is not representing a company; and the individual…just as in taxes which Christ said to render….is paying for some things he does not will intentionally. The Amish escape this dilemna by paying cash to hospitals which they collect as a community. Our religious orders have strong community in common with the Amish.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Thanks, Bill. What you suggest may be a possible outcome — dropping health insurance coverage for Catholic employees. But as Henry points out below, this will result in fines from the government. Presumably, since we do not want to punish the employees of our works, we would want to pay them more so that they could buy health insurance on their own — but with the fines, this might not be possible. The irony is tragic that the Administration, which has trumpeted health care reform, cares more about free contraceptives than working with churches to provide health care to those in need; ideology has trumped compassion and common sense.

      The Amish analogy is interesting. Perhaps in the future we will have to become “more Amish”. We might learn from them. The USCCB spokeswoman addressed the Amish question; I haven’t studied that angle of the question in much detail, but it might be worth a look:


  3. Kevin says:

    I gather the intent of the bill is that no medical facility has the right to deny treatment based on morality. Can/Does a Catholic hospital ever employ non-Catholic doctors or nurses? In other words, is it expected that only Catholic-approved medical procedures be used? If so, is there a list of operations, medications, procedures, and treatments that don’t receive a papal blessing? The Church’s position on abortion is well-known, but what about treatments for MS that were brought about using stem-cell research? What about a DNR order, which is quite common but — by standing by while someone dies — some construe as condoning suicide and even a form of passive euthanasia?

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      It’s hard to see what you mean by “based on morality”. The statement itself makes a moral claim, albeit not quite a coherent one.

      Yes, of course Catholic hospitals and schools employ non-Catholics, and they would be expected to follow Catholic teaching as far as it concerned their work in the hospital, school, social service agency, etc. If their own consciences didn’t allow them to do so, they would be free to find employment elsewhere. The rights of conscience mean that no one is forced to take employment at a Catholic institution against their will.

      There are a number of procedures that wouldn’t receive papal blessing, as you so disdainfully put it. Depriving workers of their just wages is an example; harvesting organs from unwilling children or mentally handicapped adults; testing unproven drugs on patients who had not given their consent; willful homicide… really the list could go on. All of these things are wrong based on Catholic morality, though, so I suppose it’s illegitimate for us to try to prevent them from happening in our hospitals. When I lived in a large Midwestern city, which I won’t name, the Catholic hospital would often get patients who didn’t have insurance from another prominent secular hospital. Because the Catholic hospital would not deny them treatment, the other hospital would load them into an ambulance and drop them off at the Catholic emergency room… again that dangerous papist morality at work.

      • Kevin M says:

        The Catholic position on when life begins is a moral one. Despite my not being a Catholic, I agree with it in principle, but there is no factual basis for when a human has a soul, as such things can only be measured in increments of faith. The KJV of the Bible indicates Adam did not have a soul until God literally breathed life into him, so a more reasonable argument could be made that the Word of God contradicts the Catholic perspective on this. Regardless, this moral distinction spills into the factual world of medicine, and setting aside my own beliefs or the beliefs of the Church, I’m not sure it has the right to do that.

        The rights of this nation would seem to run against the rights of conscience then, by your standard at least. Suggesting a doctor unwilling to adhere to Catholicism should find employment elsewhere would be a form of discrimination based on religion. Where are the rights of that doctor’s conscience? A doctor swears an oath to his/her patients, not to God.

        I’m not suggesting Catholics and other religions who operate hospitals aren’t providing a valuable public service, but some do so only as it fits into their theology. There is too much historical evidence where placing such restrictions led to senseless deaths (reference the dark ages as a prime example, when religion slowed down the progress of health care and superstition based on religion took countless lives).

        If you want to provide a public service by healing the sick, outstanding. If you want to provide a public service by making the public adhere to Catholic dogma, I’m not sure who is served in that instance. Nobody is “saved” forcibly. Making Catholic dogma the law of the land, or the law of a hospital, does nothing unless the people are free to embrace Jesus Christ. Forcing faith upon someone doesn’t save them from anything (reference the Spanish inquisition or the Holy crusades).

        • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

          So if a teacher at a Catholic school used school computers and school materials to produce and distribute pornography to all adults at that school, by your logic, it would be an inquisitorial imposition for the school to ask him to stop doing so because such a policy is based on morality?

          Your argument seems to be that because of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the fact that Catholics caused Germany to lose World War I (wait, was that us?…maybe I’m getting my boogeymen mixed up), it is OK for the government to impose its morality on Catholics, but it is not OK for Catholics to run institutions that abide by their own moral teachings.

          Non-Catholic workers in Catholic institutions are not required to adhere to Catholic dogma; that’s what makes them non-Catholic.

          No one is suggesting that “Catholic dogma” become the law of the land, and it is, frankly, dishonest to the point of bigotry to try to frame this debate in such terms. What we are suggesting is that Catholics working in Catholic institutions should be allowed to practice their faith without fear of being fined or imprisoned by the government.

          Also please don’t try to teach me about Catholic doctrine, especially quoting the KJV. The Catholic teaching on the morality of abortion has nothing to do with question of ensoulment. The question of when life begins is a factual one, and there’s really no dispute about the fact that the human embryo is (1) living (2) and human. The moral position, which the Church embraces but does not really depend on any version of the Bible, is that (excepting self-defense) it is wrong to kill other living humans. (Moral statements have an “ought” in them, which is why even the HHS mandate is a “moral” one, telling people what they ought to do.)

          • Kevin M says:

            As someone who taught in Christian schools for four years and a Muslim school for one year, I fought tooth and nail to teach students the skills and information they needed to know, fighting dogma every step of the way. Please don’t try to use that as an analogy to this situation, because if you read my Facebook posts during that period you know the resentment and betrayal I still feel having had my faith questioned constantly while attempting to educate children.

            My argument, in which I used extreme examples because they are known ends of the slippery slope, is that theology and the political arena do not play well together. The medical community in this nation takes its cue from the government, not from men (or women) of the cloth. To refuse treatment of a patient on religious grounds is not justified in this nation.

            What you are suggesting is that Catholic dogma supersede the law of the land — that religious authority overrules government policy. The government cannot tell a religious man what to do, nor can it outline policies for churches. And while the government also cannot tell a doctor what to do, it can dictate medical policy. The government dictates what drugs are legal and illegal. The government dictates what procedures are legal and illegal. The government does not dictate what procedures are blasphemous or immoral.

            And Tony, since it is your birthday, I won’t harp on this, but when life begins is fundamentally in dispute. I know Catholics who believe life begins at the mere thought of conception, just as all life in the universe began with a mere thought from God. The “ought” you seek is absent from the discussion so far; you believe life ought to be defined with the formation of an embryo. Again, not really central to the issue here.

            As I understand you, you want a Catholic hospital to have the same freedom to operate that a Catholic church does, but they aren’t the same things. They serve two different purposes. A church and a hospital are defined differently by both the laws and norms of modern society.

            • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

              Kevin, while I don’t want to be rude, I wish that you had read the original post and accompanying links more carefully. This might have prevented a number of accusations. On the other hand, I do realize that some of your venting here has to do with your own bad experiences with past employers; those aren’t particularly relevant to the issue at hand, though I am sorry you chose to take employement with organizations you despised.

              Your own unfortunate experiences, however, do not justify government persecution of others, and, yes, that is what you are suggesting. We are not talking about Catholic hospitals denying services to those who are not Catholic. The government edict issued by HHS requires Catholic insititutions (schools, universities, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities, food pantries, etc) to give their employees free contraceptives. That is the issue.

              We cannot do that because if we were to do so we would no longer be following Catholic teaching; we would be doing something we consider sinful and wrong. (And, yes, when it comes down to it, I will, if God gives me the strength, chose Catholic teaching over the edicts of this government, which after all only possess the ability to harm in this life.) Never was it suggested in my post or any of the attached links that anyone else be forced to share this belief, nor that they be prevented from being, say, sterilized on their own. That is not the issue here. The issue is: will Catholics be allowed to follow their Church’s teachings by the government or will they be fined or otherwise punished for doing so?

              You are in effect suggesting that my religion be made illegal. I’m not the first to point out that under the Obama rules, the ministry of Jesus Christ himself would not have qualified as religious, and the sort of principles you are suggesting here are far less tolerant than even those (likely unconstitutional) regulations. The founder of our religion told us to care for the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and a number of other things. These are not an optional part of our religion, though it is nice that in relatively modern times states have begun to exercise many of these religious functions; it was not always so. We also are committed to doing these things not just for our own co-religionists but to anyone in need. This is why, for example, St. Francis Mission, where I work, is opening a dental clinic on the Rosebud Reservation, where dental care is dramatically lacking. We will administer no religious test to those who need to have their cavities filled.

              Your position, however, is that only the government should be allowed to fulfill these functions (or those who, while retaining some sort of notional independence act functionally as if they were agencies of the state). The name of the type of society you are advocating in which schools, universities, hospitals, and charities are not allowed to exist outside of close government control is “totalitarianism”. I believe that the First Ammendment to the Constitution attempted to prevent such a type of society in the United States by prohibiting government interference in the internal affairs of churches; such interference would include the government deciding who churches hire (affirmed by the Supreme Court against the Administration’s arguments a few weeks ago in a 9-0 ruling) or the government attempting to force religious minorities to accede to the values of the majority.

              • Kevin M says:

                Tony, what are your thoughts on the quote found in the LA Times wherein the Pope seemed to have loosened the Church’s stance on condoms, citing one example wherein prostitutes could use them under specific circumstances?


                It points to a basic flaw I see in the Catholic church — that its own ethics are fungible based on whoever serves as the Bishop of Rome.

                I appreciate that you have very clear moral opinions on this issue. As do I. However, neither your morality nor mine enter into it. Ask around — I’m certainly not an advocate of the government, and I detest the two-faced nature of the current president. But I don’t want any religion setting a medical standard. The very notions makes my stomach twist into knots.

                The basic issue seems to be that you believe it to be wrong to make a hospital provide treatment deemed sinful. Whether providing condoms or conducting abortions, you seem to believe a hospital has the right to refuse treatment to somebody based on dogma. I understand you aren’t suggesting refusing non-Catholics, but you are suggesting refusing non-sanctioned procedures. In this instance I’d tend to side with the government position that it is cruel to expect patients to abide by religious standards they do not adhere to. It amounts to forcing faith upon somebody through action, not words.

                As I chose some extreme examples earlier to illustrate a point, you’ve chose extreme words — I assume — for the same reason. Totalitarianism doesn’t apply here. The application of norms and standards in the medical community by government agencies is not a new concept, nor is it a slippery slope.

                Like you, I believe that through faith we are inspired to serve others, as doctors, priests, teachers, etc. But because our faith moves us does not mean the freedoms granted to churches under the Constitution applies to other types of institutions such as schools or hospitals.

                In medical school a commonly told story concerns the doctor who set Booth’s broken leg after he shot President Lincoln and was trying to escape. The doctor had no choice but to assist Booth, despite the fact he disliked what Booth had done, because Booth was his patient and the job of a doctor is to set personal beliefs aside and treat the patient. To refuse to treat a patient based on personal beliefs goes against the oath they swear as doctors. Booth’s doctor was executed for doing his job — for not allowing his personal beliefs to affect his role to treat his patient. You stated the oath you swore as a priest is more important to you than any pledge of allegiance to the country, and I agree. But doctors swear a different oath than you do. The oath they swear is not to themselves or to God, but to their patients, regardless of who they might be.

            • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

              I should add that I find it extraordinary that you express such fear of churches but you seem to have no problem whatever with the government exercising apparently unlimited control in the moral sphere. All of the “religious” boogeymen you mention (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Usual Suspects) were also functions of the governments of the time. So religions can’t run independent institutions but the government can run everything? The government must be trusted.

              Posted from the Rosebud Indian Reservation, where the US government must be trusted.

  4. Henry says:

    Great post Anthony! I find it interesting that even Daughters of Charity Sister Carol Keehan and Franciscan Sister Jane Klein, neither of which one would consider “super orthodox Catholics” are also opposing this.

    From what I have been reading, the problem is that if a Catholic college or hospital chooses not to cover items required by the government mandate, it would be penalized with a hefty fine and forced to terminate its health insurance for employees and students. This is a blatant attempt by the government to make a religious entity, in essence, act as if it’s own beliefs were less important that the government’s beliefs. Something which, as I understand it, is not permitted by the Constitution on the whole. (Yes, I realize there are limits but this isn’t one of them, in my opinion.)

    I have been following the case of Belmont Abbey College v. Sebelius on the Beckett Fund website and source documents can be found here: http://www.becketfund.org/belmont-abbey-college-v-sebelius-2011-current/

    So to me, the issue is about government intrusion, something which is really troubling me more and more because it seems to be growing.

  5. Jack Holden says:

    The picture you selected of President Obama evokes in the mind the Hitler salute. Is the image parallel between Barack Obama and Fascism on purpose or a coincidence?

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      I thought it looked like he was blessing the crowd… which ties in to the point that he is exercising illegitimate interference in the religious sphere.

  6. Greg says:

    Jehovah’s Witnesses’s have a problem with blood transfusions and are being forced to pay for them against there consciences

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Actually, the Administration isn’t forcing all health care plans to provide blood transfusions free of charge… strange, since blood transfusions are a potentially life-saving treatment whereas contraception and abortifacients… wait, what is the purpose of health care again?

  7. Anne Hodges says:

    Mr. Lusvardi;
    As a multi-generatioanl Catholic, I hear the word of god telling me to live a good life and stop telling/demanding that other people do what I think they should do. Please read Conversations with God, by Neale Donald Walsch to get a little insight beyond your rabid dogma. We are not living in the middle ages where you, no doubt, would be very comfortable.

    As to your attempts to control other people’s actions and that of unborn embryos I did not ask to be born and would just as well preferred not to have had to be part of a world where the likes of you sprew venom on people trying to respect the opinions of others.

  8. Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

    In order to avoid the absurd narrowing of the columns, I’m going to respond to Kevin’s latest post down here. I’ve addressed the Pope’s comments on condoms before, and Aaron Pidel did so even more effectively:



    No pope has the authority to change Catholic doctrine; more than anyone else, the pope is bound by what is handed on to him. Hard to see how this is in anyway “on topic,” other than to point out that you are rightly free to despise the Catholic Church for whatever reasons you want. You are even free to attack her in public and misrepresent her teachings without government interference. However, if the Constitution means anything, it must be that, though our beliefs are unpopular, you cannot impose your beliefs on Catholics using the coercive powers of the government.

    I really wish that I could find more common ground with you, but when you deny the free exercise of my religion, that does rather limit the terrain. You want to limit the Constitution’s religious protections merely to worship, which would be perhaps the most radical reinterpretation of the Constitution in history. It would also in effect reduce Catholics to second class citizens by preventing them from doing almost anything in the public sphere.

    Part of the problem seems to be that you are using this term “moral” in a totally incoherent way. Moral beliefs in your usuage are an illegitimate basis for action in the public sphere. However, forcing people to buy contraceptives for other people is not, in your usage, a moral command. Somehow that does not represent forcing one’s morality on another.

    You state that it is cruel to expect patients to abide by religious standards they do not adhere to, and yet that is precisely why I am objecting the the HHS mandate–because the government will be forcing everyone to adhere to a certain moral/religious standard to which a minority does not agree.

    And with regard to almost everything else you’ve written this time, I again repeat my plea to actually discuss the issue at hand, rather than continually bringing up this canard of doctors denying treatment to patients. Oaths have really no bearing on the matter; if I swear to rape and murder, it does not make make raping and murdering any less wrong. (And I’m not sure what oath you are talking about my having taken.) Regardless, I don’t know of any oath doctors may take that would require them to do whatever their patient asked even if they knew it to be wrong.

    Think about that Booth example a bit longer and what it actually proves…

  9. Mary says:

    Thank you for your article – I have read it and have followed down the line of posts – again – thank you for bringing such focus to such a horrific issue that is looming over us all. It’s clear to me how much the election in November 2012 is important to remove the current President and return the United States to the path of freedom and good for all. It’s crystal clear how President Obama and the left Democrats have clearly lost all understanding of the United States, its formation and how precious our religious freedom is. I’m shocked to think how fragile our freedoms are. Thank you for your wonderful column, I’ll share it with as many as I can.

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