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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVII, No. 2
Pentecost 2012

Would You Go to Jail -- With Your Bishop?

by Julianne Wiley

It’s not often happened, in my lifetime, that the US government would flatly require what God forbids, or forbid what God requires. Usually political judgments have had to do with teaspoon measuring and prudential reasoning, sorting and bargaining and trade-offs of competing goods. The picture is made by pencil: we sketch and erase, we compare estimated costs and benefits of differing public policies. These things are negotiable; and the negotiation is called politics.

So it was most shocking, in the first few months of 2012, for American Catholics to face not the usual shading, tinting and cross-hatching, but a true black-and-white crisis. Through the Health and Human Services (HHS) “contraceptive mandate” in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), Catholic institutions would be required to subsidize in practice programs and policies that we utterly — morally, ethically, religiously — reject in conscience. We faced not “politics”, but coercive force that threatened the existence of every Catholic institution in the United States.

As I write, some temporary abatement seems possible: the US Supreme Court may strike down the huge, tractor-treaded “Obamacare” machine in its entirety. Or the court may knock out its key part, its money engine, the “individual mandate,” which would eventually collapse the entire federal health insurance apparatus.

But what if the Supreme Court fails to do this?

Or what if the legal authority of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to define and enforce nationwide insurance policy requirements somehow survives the wreckage?

Or what if the Obama administration or some successor administration tries to re-impose mandatory contraception/abortion coverage by separate legislation at a later date?

I am convinced that even the most favorable Supreme Court ruling will not prevent such crises from cropping up again and again in the near future. We will no longer be asked to tolerate evils: we will be ordered to participate in them: as payers first, then as providers. And since Catholic institutions can not both forbid sins and offer them as benefits, some Catholic commentators narrow the possible Catholic responses to only two: don’t offer any health coverage at all and pay the resultant fines; or shut down.

“Wait a minute,” you might say. “Couldn’t we, as a temporary tactical expedient, simply pay for the immoral insurance coverage in order to buy time to mobilize our forces, and fight? Couldn’t we do so under protest, while launching campaigns on the electoral, legislative, and judicial fronts to change the HHS mandate? Couldn’t we do it while attacking politicians who support the mandate, networking with state governments and other allies to overturn it, and suing every HHS official in the country? Couldn’t we go along with it for a time, but only in order to survive, fight, and win?”

The answer, I think, is “no.”

I can’t see how it could be morally all right to offer immoral services, even if “under protest.” I would argue that offering one’s workforce chemical neutering, sexual mutilation, and/or embryotoxins as a form of employee compensation, is malum in se — evil in itself.

Why wouldn’t cooperating with the disposal of unwanted embryos be as bad as cooperating with the disposal of unwanted bishops? Would the US Conference of Catholic Bishops do this, but only “under protest”?

I doubt that the American Cancer Society would pay to subsidize monthly cartons of Marlboros for their employees, even under protest. That’s because they would consider it outrageous. They have, perhaps, stronger convictions than we do.

Why would anyone believe that we believe that cooperation in evil is actually condemned if we would do it to save our assets? How would we “mobilize” our so-called “forces” if we immediately enfeeble them with the example of compliance? This would not inspire and electrify the people. It would cause us to collapse right back into our customary slump. Who will spring to their feet to save an institution whose ongoing strategy is finessing a compromise? Who will follow an uncertain trumpet?

So we’re back to the question: say the Supreme Court fails us, or a newly legislated push-and-shove is upon us, and the government goes forward with its demand that you pay for universal insurance coverage of contraception/sterilization/abortion. What do you do?


A) Stop offering insurance altogether, and pay the fines.

This answer is INCORRECT. If this is what you choose, then you will hand incremental but certain victory to the Culture of Death.

The fines will be financially crippling. They will cause you to shrink your institutions, radically scale back your services to those in need, or disband your ministries altogether, and the fines will be used to pay for contraception/sterilization/abortion, thus resulting in the Catholic Church funding the Culture of Death anyway. Big fines are just another avenue of collection, and thus of collaboration and submission.

B) Shut down, sell off, or secularize the Church-related institutions (schools, hospitals, charities) and thus avoid both morally repugnant insurance policies and fines.

This answer is ALSO INCORRECT. Once again, if this is what you choose, it amounts to preemptive surrender.

The shut-down of Church ministries is exactly what the Culture of Death wanted to begin with. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan has said, “If I tell [the Albany NY political establishment], ‘I’m going to close all my schools,’ you don’t think there’d be somersaults up and down the corridors?”

This is what they have been aiming at from the git-go, almost by definition: they want the state absorb, usurp, or take effective control of all human services, caring professions, and charities.

Additionally, the shut-down or sell-off option gives the Culture of Death a massive propaganda victory, allowing them to claim that, to preserve its irrational, rigid, taboos, the Catholic Church now petulantly refuses to help the sick, assist the needy, and teach the next generation.

But there is, possibly, a third answer, one that would make possible a truly Catholic moral witness:

C) Refuse to pay any fines or to shut down, and simply continue our mission — anticipating the State’s next move: inexorable legal prosecution; the overt, forcible political repression of the Church.

This is the correct answer. This is the glory of the Gospel and all of salvation history.

We will worship God first and only. We will run our health, education, charitable, publishing, and human service institutions according to Catholic principles of moral law. We will continue to do this even if the HHS, the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service haul us into court, throw us in jail, and forcibly seize Church-related properties, assets and institutions.

We will not choose either submission or self-extinction. Not willingly. We have to show them that we’ll celebrate the Paschal Mystery in prison first, thanking God that we have been found worthy to suffer. 

The two most important things we must guard against, in my view, are: the further enfeeblement of our moral witness by saying, in effect, “This is a deadly sin, but if you press us, we’ll pay for it;” and the further scandal of saving institutions “on the outside” while they approach a state of advanced decomposition “on the inside.”

The increasingly obvious weakness of Catholic moral teaching is that we have not been teaching it.

Many Catholics — let alone non-Catholic employees of Catholic institutions — have never in their lives encountered a powerful argument for sexual integrity. They don’t know there is such an argument.

The present crisis is the end-game, where the perverse program — splitting men from women, splitting sex from marriage, splitting procreation from lovemaking, splitting soul from body — is to be installed as the permanent software of our lives, presumptively normative for all.

Christians have a better teaching. And we must teach the teaching by living the teaching.

Objection: “They will levy additional penalties, put a lien on our assets, and sell us on the courthouse steps, thus accomplishing what they want: shutting us down. It has to be either practical compromise, or judicial extermination.”

Response: “Either/or? I’ll take ‘judicial’ for 500, Alex.”

Fundamental moral teaching is truly in grave jeopardy. We cannot win this battle if we merely find some plausible way to finesse an inherently unjust situation.

Worse: If we craft a little opt-out only for Church-related institutions we will be ignoring the fact that every person legally resident in the United States will ultimately be forced to become an accomplice in this sin, as payer, provider, or participant.

If we settle, if we fudge, if we signal that in the end we would quietly pay the fines or willingly secularize our institutions — in other words, submit — we are absolutely, positively guaranteed defeat.

The only tactically sound, logically sound, and morally sound response to the HHS and the Culture-of-Death operatives is this: the Works of Mercy and the Cross.

No one — no one — will stand up and fight, if the hospital is still called “Mercy” but its leadership is in its 40th or 50th year of saving their 501(c)(3) by temporizing with the merciless. But if every school and hospital is forcibly seized and re-named “Mercy-free” — and our principals and administrators and bishops are all in federal prisons? Rejoice and be glad. Historically, prison has always been an excellent pulpit and a school of saints.

I think if our Catholic leaders would show us an admirable spectacle of “Acts of the Apostles” sacrifice, it would electrify the laity. There’d be waves of people saying yes to the Church, if a bishop or two said (via a televised, manacled perp-walk), “No to this tyranny.”

Catholics would surge from their comfortable pews if “Bishops jailed for refusing government mandate” was the top of the news. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod — the best of them: Richard Land (SBC), and Matthew Harrison (LCMS), Chuck Colson (Prison Fellowship/Wilberforce), and Leith Anderson (National Association of Evangelicals) — might well saddle up at the sound of a certain trumpet; the best of the Orthodox would be shouting Axios! — He is worthy!

And we’d have something like a Catholic Church.
Pope Pius XI, pray for us.
Mit brennender Sorge.*

Ed Note: Chuck Colson died April 21, after this article was written.

* Mit brennender Sorge (German: “With burning concern”) is the encyclical of Pope Pius XI, dated Passion Sunday, March 1937, condemning the breaches of the Reichskonkordat agreement signed between the Nazi government and the Church in 1933, and sharply criticizing Nazism. Written in German, it was read from the pulpits of all German Catholic churches on Palm Sunday that year.

Julianne Loesch Wiley, a contributing editor to Voices, is a Catholic writer and longtime pro-life activist. She is the wife of Donald Wiley and the mother of two sons. The Wileys live in Johnson City, Tennessee.

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