U.S. Catholic Bishops Insist on ‘the Freedom to Proclaim the Gospel in Its Entirety’

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

As Catholics celebrated the feast day of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first U.S. citizen canonized by the Catholic Church, the U.S. Catholic bishops discussed the Department of Health and Human Services abortion-drug, contraception, sterilization mandate that many dioceses and other Catholic institutions are currently suing the administration over. They came out of their closed-door session in Baltimore Wednesday unanimously united in opposition.

In a closing statement, the U.S. Catholic bishops expressed their frustration with the Obama administration and their resolve to continue to defend religious liberty, refusing to surrender to its narrowing in this blow to conscience the HHS mandate represents. The “special message” includes:

Despite our repeated efforts to work and dialogue toward a solution, those problems remain. Not only does the mandate undermine our ministries’ ability to witness to our faith, which is their core mission, but the penalties it imposes also lay a great burden on those ministries, threatening their very ability to survive and to serve the many who rely on their care. 

The current impasse is all the more frustrating because the Catholic Church has long been a leading provider of, and advocate for, accessible, life-affirming health care. We would have preferred to spend these recent past years working toward this shared goal instead of resisting this intrusion into our religious liberty. We have been forced to devote time and resources to a conflict we did not start nor seek.

As the government’s implementation of the mandate against us approaches, we bishops stand united in our resolve to resist this heavy burden and protect our religious freedom. Even as each bishop struggles to address the mandate, together we are striving to develop alternate avenues of response to this difficult situation. We seek to answer the Gospel call to serve our neighbors, meet our obligation to provide our people with just health insurance, protect our religious freedom, and not be coerced to violate our consciences. We remain grateful for the unity we share in this endeavor with Americans of all other faiths, and even with those of no faith at all. It is our hope that our ministries and lay faithful will be able to continue providing insurance in a manner consistent with the faith of our Church. We will continue our efforts in Congress and especially with the promising initiatives in the courts to protect the religious freedom that ensures our ability to fulfill the Gospel by serving the common good.

In the statement, which passed unanimously, the bishops looked to Pope Francis for continuing inspiration in this fight:

Pope Francis has reminded us that “In the context of society, there is only one thing which the Church quite clearly demands: the freedom to proclaim the Gospel in its entirety, even when it runs counter to the world, even when it goes against the tide.”  

The statement is an important one for a few reasons: The Catholic bishops of the United States continue to buck up the small-business owners who for reasons of conscience know they cannot comply with the mandate; 2) despite media attempts to portray fatigue on the issue, the bishops see the big picture: If Christians are by Gospel mandated to live radical lives, they can’t give into an unnecessary government mandate coercively insisting people violate their consciences if they are going to provide insurance coverage.

Unnecessary as this strong-arm attempt to further institutionalize sexual-revolutionary values is, it has been a clarifying one. We want believers in our democratic-republican mix – we need real believers as buttresses of a vibrant civil society.

Media received Cardinal Dolan’s farewell address Monday as president of the bishops’ conference as some kind of change in tone, as he talked about religious persecution abroad. Not only was it consistent with themes domestic and international he’s sounded as president – he might as well be godfather of journalist John Allen’s new book on international religious persecution (see my interview with him here), it having been inspired by an interview conversation the two had – it is the necessary extension of the religious-freedom fight the White House has forced. Many have found themselves called to be leaders in stewardship, protecting this God-given gift of religious freedom. In doing so, we will ensure that the U.S. remains a beacon, giving hope and voice to those who do not have the protections we do, some who face the prospect of death when they dare to go to church on Sunday.

And religion is not just for Sunday. It’s about living radical, integrated lives. During a month that has become a long ode to John F. Kennedy, any change in tone you might notice is one of urgent renewal: The secularism the HHS mandate represents — complete with “Catholic cover” in the names of professed Catholic politicians who defend it – is one believers have contributed to. Christians can’t tolerate practical atheism in our lives, relegating faith to mere worship or consolation in hard times. The privatization of religion doesn’t work — it’s not the Christian call. And American society — culture and yes, even government — needs real religion — people who are called to serve their neighbors out of love of God.

Make no mistake, the bishops’ leadership on religious liberty has not been a political or ideological posture; it’s the stuff of Gospel mandate. And so it continues. Not simply in the form of court cases and education campaigns but in extending ourselves in love and service. The bishops here are reteaching Christianity. 

In his last address as president of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Dolan quoted Pope Francis:

“When I hear that so many Christians in the world are suffering, am I indifferent, or is it as if a member of my own family is suffering? When I think or hear it said that many Christians are persecuted and give their lives for their faith, does this touch my heart or does it not reach me? Am I open to that brother or that sister in my family who’s giving his or her life for Jesus Christ?  Do we pray for one another? How many of you pray for Christians who are persecuted?  How many? Everyone respond in his own heart. It’s important to look beyond one’s own fence, to feel oneself part of the Church, of one family of God!”

We’re not going to solve any contentious political debates, we’re not going to make anything better, unless we look around, meet needs, not demanding the government do more, but that we all do better. The pope talks often about weeping for those who suffer, for those who die yearning for a better life, seeking freedom, justice. We cannot be indifferent. We must pray and work. Whether it’s religious liberty or poverty, or immigration, the posture is honesty. Even when there is prudential disagreement, the posture is keeping people honest, being intolerant of indifference.

What often gets lost in press releases and news headlines and political debate is the fundamentals. These bishops are administrators, of course, and this leads them to speak to political issues from a position of experience and pastoral need. The big picture is the common good, a common vocabulary, a new anthropology that meets people where they are, so we can move forward together, healing wounds and building a culture of life and yes, even love.




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