FATHER JOE, PERSONAL CONSCIENCE and RELIGIOUS LIBERTY Some friends seem to question my judgment (maybe my sanity, too) when I say that Jesuits hold a special place in my heart. That’s not to deny my very special and unique love for Francis of Assisi and Franciscans, either … or my admiration for Dominicans (who taught me as a teenager) or for the peerless diocesan priests who form the backbone of the Church and to whom I’m so personally indebted. All I’m saying here is that the Society of Jesus is well and includes many priests who make the Church and the legacy of Saint Ignatius Loyola proud. And these include many in the current crop of younger Jesuit postulants, novices and ordinands.
One Jesuit I deeply admire is Father Joe Koterski, head of the Philosophy Department at Fordham University. He’s currently the President of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. This week he issued the statement below on behalf of the Fellowship, addressing the Obama Administration’s assault on religious liberty.
The HHS Mandate
by Rev. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J. President of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars
The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars is deeply concerned about threats to religious liberty in any sphere, including especially Catholic institutions of higher education such as universities, colleges, and seminaries. For this reason we deplore the incursions against religious liberty that have been threatened by the recent declaration of the Department of Health and Human Services that requires coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception. As the President of this organization, I urge our members to join me in objecting both to the rule about “preventive services” and to the “compromise” offered by President Obama in regard to religious liberty.
Meaningful religious liberty requires that individuals of all faiths as well as all religiously affiliated institutions have the freedom to practice their faith in a way that respects moral truth and the inviolability of an individual’s conscience. Accordingly, religiously affiliated institutions have the right to have appropriate policies and practices in place. In the course of this dispute, the Obama Administration recently proposed what it labeled an “accommodation” for religiously affiliated institutions that it claims would resolve the problem by shifting the burden of paying for these products and services to insurance plans. But the government would still be forcing religious institutions and individuals to buy insurance policies that cover services that the Catholic Church sees as gravely immoral, such as abortion-drugs, sterilizations, and contraceptives. Although the Obama Administration has called this a compromise, it is no such thing. It in no way alters the attack on religious liberty and on the rights of conscience that are at issue.
This HHS requirement violates both religious liberty and the right of every American to the exercise of that religious liberty. Despite widely publicized claims that the Obama Administration has made meaningful changes in the HHS mandate, the rule as issued in August 2011 remains in place “without change” and religious employers committed to serving people of faiths other than the sponsoring institution are still not exempt as “religious employers” but are described as “non-exempt.” In fact, even if the proposed changes to the requirement were morally acceptable, they would merely be promises of action in the future. Since the policies in dispute are to be developed over the coming year before its enforcement, their effect will not be felt until 2013, well after the next election. Hence, we need to urge other people of faith, conscience, and good will as well as our co-religionists to raise vigorous objections to the HHS initiative, so that individuals as well as religiously affiliated schools, hospitals, and charities will not have to violate their beliefs or be faced with unconstitutional financial penalties for exercising their faith.
One of the most distressing parts of this whole debacle is the way in which the Administration seems to be trying to marginalize the bishops and thereby promote an alternative magisterium. As Catholic scholars, we recognize the legitimate role our bishops play as the official teachers of the faith, especially in the formation of conscience. Respect for our Church and for Catholic beliefs demands recognition that it is our bishops speak authoritatively on matters of faith and morals. To pretend or act otherwise is insulting to our community of faith and involves government encroachment into the internal affairs of the Church. We join all people of faith and good will in urging the Obama Administration to rescind this regulation and to recognize Americans’ God-given and constitutionally protected rights to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of their consciences.
The importance of defending religious liberty is crucial. Here we might bear in mind the following passages from Pope Benedict XVI’s address to U.S. Bishops on January 19, 2012. The full text can be found here.
“With her long tradition of respect for the right relationship between faith and reason, the Church has a critical role to play in countering cultural currents which, on the basis of an extreme individualism, seek to promote notions of freedom detached from moral truth. Our tradition does not speak from blind faith, but from a rational perspective which links our commitment to building an authentically just, humane and prosperous society to our ultimate assurance that the cosmos is possessed of an inner logic accessible to human reasoning. …
“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.
“Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society. The preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the Church in your country; as essential components of the new evangelization, these concerns must shape the vision and goals of catechetical programs at every level.
“In this regard, I would mention with appreciation your efforts to maintain contacts with Catholics involved in political life and to help them understand their personal responsibility to offer public witness to their faith, especially with regard to the great moral issues of our time: respect for God’s gift of life, the protection of human dignity and the promotion of authentic human rights.”
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