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.