The US Supreme Court ruling today on Obamacare is a real shocker. In a 5-4 ruling, the mandate was surprisingly upheld; US Supreme Court justice John Roberts being the swing vote. Suddenly, the uphill climb to preserve religious liberty in our country is looking a little steeper.
I cannot help but recall the words of what sounded like a prophetic utterance almost four years ago. Cardinal James Francis Stafford gave a lecture in the fall of 2008 at the Catholic University of America. He warned his audience about the perils to come after president-elect Barak Obama won the bid for the President of the United States. He said, “On November 4, 2008, America suffered a cultural earthquake.” Then he added: “For the next few years, Gethsemane will not be marginal. We will know that garden.”
Sixty years before Stafford’s statement, Bishop Fulton Sheen reminded Americans that it gets the politicians it deserves. In fact, the moral integrity of politicians which, by the way, is inseparable from the competence and worthiness to lead, never rises above the citizenry. Indeed, men and women who occupy the offices of civil authority are but a mirror of the people who put them there. Political remedies, therefore, invariably rest upon factors outside of politics; factors that are bound up with the morality and spirituality of the people.
The Old Testament prophets were keenly aware this. When Israel’s liberty was in jeopardy because of the hostile actions of foreign powers such as the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, you will notice that they spent little time condemning them. It is even true to say that our Lord Jesus had little to say about the overbearing nature of the Roman Empire which had dominated Palestine in his day. Rather, both the prophets and our Lord zeroed in on, not the sins of outsiders per say, but on the sins of the people of God; especially their leaders. Christ and the prophets took it for grant it that spiritual slavery to sin was but the precursor to political slavery.
This is where the comments by Christopher Dawson, a Catholic historian, are quite instructive; especially for the Catholic Church as Obamacare entrenches itself in the medical world. He said, “Religious people are not always very clear-sighted in political matters and nothing is easier for them to mistake the real danger and waste their time attacking that form of secularism which happens to be the most unpopular in their own society, and consequently the least likely to succeed, while they close their eyes to the real source of danger.”
The most unpopular aspect of the HHS mandate for Catholics is that it violates the Church’s liberty to carry out her mission as she sees fit. In good conscience, Catholic agencies cannot distribute birth control as the mandate requires. Such a policy violates Church teachings. Up to this point, however, the campaign mounted by the Catholic Church for religious liberty has met with little success. Indeed, there are few signs that the Obama administration has suffered politically for it. Moreover, the public’s reaction to the HHS mandate has been surprisingly subdued.
To use Dawson’s words, “the real source of danger” is that the campaign to defend religious liberty is being waged without due consideration for the moral principles behind the Church’s teachings on contraception. Can the Catholic Church really arouse sympathy from the public when the majority of people believe that contraception is morally acceptable? It’s very much like the ban on smoking in privately owned restaurants. Because cigarette smoke is a displeasing aroma to most, the ban on smoking is not something people quibble over. In fact, most people are in favor of the ban. However, when personal likes and dislikes trump the principles and rights of private ownership (i.e. the right to engage in a legal activity on private property), then liberty is less likely to be defended. And if most people think that artificial contraception is a good thing, the public outrage of the HHS mandate will continue to be subdued.
The question then becomes: How would the prophets, the saints and our Lord himself respond to the HHS mandate and the US Supreme Court ruling? If past behavior is any indication then I am guessing they would first fix their gaze on the Church herself. As St. Peter said, “For it is time for the judgment to begin with the household of God…” The day of accounting begins with those who have been entrusted with much. And as for the Church, she has been blessed above all churches and religions. But her responsibility is proportionate to the blessings given to her. For that reason, her leaders and members have much to answer for because much has been given to them.
In light of this, it would seem we are attempting to educate the public about religious liberty and are campaigning for its perseveration without also educating the public about the moral principles behind the Church’s teaching on contraception. A case can even be made that Catholics have distanced themselves from God's teaching on contraception. Church goers rarely, if at all, hear about it on Sundays. As such, the public will naturally wonder why the Church is fighting so hard for the freedom “not to distribute” contraception to her employees. But the Church needs the American people to understand this if we are to benefit from their support. To this end, explaining the reasons why we cannot comply with the HHS mandate is paramount!
Hence, the campaign for religious liberty should not be divorced from the moral and social evils of birth control for the very reason that freedom and morality go hand in hand. And for those times when we were silent about Christ's moral law on contraception, perhaps to publicly repent is every bit as necessary as our protests and denunciations. After all, the "real source of danger" is from within.
If we do make amends, we can pass through this garden- the garden of trials Cardinal Stafford referred to in 2008 -and expect that God will bless the Church's mission to preserve religious liberty. But this can hardly be done without the Church undergoing a much needed interior purification. To be sure, if we do not do it, God will do it for us.