Decades ago, priests, religious brothers and religious sisters were colorfully visible features of Catholic hospitals, serving as nurses, chaplains, business officers, and chief administrators. With the decline in vocations, this obviously religious leadership largely disappeared, but Catholic values, for the most part, still animated these institutions. What has begun to concern a number of observers is that, as today’s medical personnel, staffers, and administrators at Catholic hospitals have accommodated themselves more and more to secularist assumptions, even those values are in danger of disappearing.
But now the slow and steady creep of secularization has been given a massive push by the Obama administration’s recent mandate that all health-care agencies and institutions must pay for insurance that covers contraception, sterilization, and certain kinds of abortifacient drugs. The state is creating an impossible situation for Catholic hospitals. If they cave in and provide insurance for these verboten procedures, they have effectively de-Catholicized themselves; and if they refuse to provide such insurance, they will be met with fines of millions of dollars, which they cannot possibly pay. In either case, they are forced out of business as Catholic.
The secularist state wants Catholicism off the public stage and relegated to a private realm where it cannot interfere with secularism’s totalitarian agenda. I realize that in using that particular term, I’m dropping a rhetorical bomb, but I am not doing so casually. A more tolerant liberalism allows, not only for freedom of worship, but also for real freedom of religion, which is to say, the expression of religious values in the public square and the free play of religious ideas in the public conversation. Most of our founding fathers advocated just this type of liberalism. But there is another modality of secularism — sadly on display in the current administration — that is actively aggressive toward religion, precisely because it sees religion as its primary rival in the public arena.
The reason that the Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments to the Constitution — is so important is that it holds off the tendency, inherent in any government, toward totalitarianism, even if that means the totalitarianism of the majority. The very first amendment, of course, guarantees the free exercise of religion in our country. Our founders obviously feared that even a democratic system, predicated upon a repudiation of tyranny, could become so tyrannical itself that it would seek to intrude upon the sacred realm of the religious conscience. As Jefferson, Tocqueville, Lincoln, and many others have seen, our democracy is especially healthy when it disallows a concentration of power — political, economic, or cultural — in any one place. I would hope that American Catholics would argue against the Obama administration’s move, not only because they are Catholics, but also because they are Americans.
— Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein. He is the creator of a new ten-episode documentary series called Catholicism.
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