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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVII, No. 1
Lent - Eastertide 2012

Inside Voices

Religious Freedom, Conscience, Government and Responsibility

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

“It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States comes to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres”, said Pope Benedict XVI, addressing a group of American bishops on their official visit to the Vatican. He warned of “certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion”.

“At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not”, he said, “is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing”. It is “enshrined in your nation’s founding documents”, which are “grounded in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God”. That consensus has been “eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents” that are “not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such”, Pope Benedict said in his January 19 address. (Complete text page 4)

The pope was prophetic.

The very next day, January 20, the Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Kathleen Sebelius (a Catholic), announced that any religious institution that either employs or serves people outside their own religious group (e.g., hospitals, schools, missions, charities, organizations, etc.) is required to provide contraception and sterilization (“prevention”) insurance coverage, even when this directly opposes the teachings of that religion. This sweeping decision reflected the policy of the Obama administration, which has turned down repeated requests from Catholic bishops, hospitals, schools, and charitable organizations to revise its extremely narrow religious exemption in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), passed March 23, 2010.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) response to the HHS ruling was immediate — and powerful.

On the same day, January 20, the USCCB’s president, then-Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, declared the HHS ruling “unconscionable”. He said, “to force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable. It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom. Historically this represents a challenge and a compromise of our religious liberty.”

On January 22, the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, President Barack Obama intensified the assault on religious liberty when he issued a proclamation stating that “a woman’s right to choose” abortion is a “fundamental constitutional right”:

As we mark the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we must remember that this Supreme Court decision not only protects a woman’s health and reproductive freedom, but also affirms a broader principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters. I remain committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose and this fundamental constitutional right. While this is a sensitive and often divisive issue — no matter what our views, we must stay united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women and mothers, reduce the need for abortion, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption. And as we remember this historic anniversary, we must also continue our efforts to ensure that our daughters have the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities as our sons to fulfill their dreams.

The president simply proclaimed, without explanation, that the “rights, freedoms, and opportunities” of women — including “our daughters” — can only be assured by free access to abortion; that abortion is a “fundamental constitutional right”. And by the HHS ruling he has boldly asserted his power to determine that the government has the fundamental right to overturn even the most essential moral teachings of religion.

The president’s proclamation was made on the sane day that the massive annual March for Life was taking place in Washington.

Vigorous Leadership from Bishops

What was the response of the bishops to these most recent expressions of “hostility to Christianity as such”?

That very same evening, January 22, at the National Prayer Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, linked the 39-year struggle to end abortion on demand with the January 20 HHS Secretary’s announcement: “Never before in our U.S. history has the federal government forced citizens to directly purchase what violates our beliefs. At issue here … is the survival of a cornerstone constitutionally protected freedom that ensures respect for conscience and religious liberty.”

On January 23, at the closing Mass at the National Shrine, Cardinal Dolan said, “From a human point of view, we may be tempted to surrender, when our government places conception, pregnancy and birth under the Centers for Disease Control, when chemically blocking conception or aborting the baby in the womb is considered a ‘right’ to be subsidized by others who abhor it”. The USCCB then sent a letter to all diocesan bishops, requesting their participation in opposition to the HHS ruling, and in the struggle for religious liberty. Other statements quickly followed.

• On February 3, in a remarkable press release, the bishops went so far as to characterize as “false” statements on the White House blog about the HHS ruling and that the Obama administration is “committed to respecting religious beliefs”.

• On February 6 the USCCB issued a press release with a series of points regarding the new regulations. It reiterated the point that many Catholic institutions will be affected and that it will force them to pay for things considered immoral by the Church. 

• On February 10, President Obama, in response to the outcry opposing the ruling, offered a “compromise” to those who morally oppose contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization, which said that insurance companies, not employers, would provide these “preventive services”.

But this “accommodation” would still force religious people, groups, and organizations to violate their most deeply held convictions. Only the day before, February 9, the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) had filed a lawsuit against the administration’s policy, on the grounds that it violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution, and would force EWTN to pay for the “preventive services”. The administration’s “accommodation” did not resolve these issues — so EWTN v. Sebelius continues.

• On February 13, “Six More Things Everyone Should Know About the HHS Mandate” was posted on the USCCB web site.1

• On February 15, in a letter to all US senators, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo called for support for the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act” (S. 1467), and explained how this is especially needed following the HHS mandate.2

By mid-February every bishop who heads a diocese, without exception — 180 in all — had made a strong statement on these critical issues, and most of them directed that the letter be read in all the parishes in their dioceses.3

The USCCB also highlighted protests by other religious groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Other Calls to Action

Women for Faith & Family was not silent. On January 31, we stated our renewed opposition to unjust government acts, and our determination to support religious liberty — especially the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. Our statement says, in part,

The Respect for Rights of Conscience Act is crucial to bringing PPACA into line with the federal government’s long legal tradition of respect for the rights of conscience. It would change no current state or federal mandate for health coverage, but would prevent any new mandates under PPACA (such as HHS’s new set of “preventive services for women”) from being used to disregard the freedom of conscience that Americans now enjoy.4

We also created a new web section, “Catholics and Religious Liberty”, to provide resources for review and study of key issues.5

“Unacceptable” is the blunt title of an emphatic statement that “compelling religious people and institutions who are employers to purchase a health insurance contract that provides abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization … is a grave violation of religious freedom and cannot stand. It is an insult to the intelligence of Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other people of faith and conscience…”

The “Unacceptable” letter, first published February 10 and updated later, called the recent ruling “a grave infringement on religious liberty”. As of February 17, the letter had been signed by about 300 academics, dozens of religious leaders, leaders of religious organizations, and journalists.6

The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars deplored threats to religious liberty in a statement issued February 18, which said that the government has effectively set up an “alternative magisterium”, thereby “insulting our community of faith” and involving “government encroachment into the affairs of the Church”.7

“Don’t Claim to Speak for All Women”, an open letter to Congress and the White House, signed by more than 750 women from all walks of life (including Women for Faith & Family board members), appeared February 21. The letter decried the false notion that women collectively support the HHS ruling. “No one speaks for all women on these issues”, the letter said. Those who purport to do so are only attempting to deflect attention from the serious religious liberty issues currently at stake”.8

The Family Research Council presented a letter signed by 2,500 Baptist and evangelical pastors and leaders at a February 20 press conference in Washington, DC. It called the HHS ruling “a severe blow to our religious freedom”, and quoted Thomas Jefferson: “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical”.9

What Price Freedom?

Obviously, this is not just a “Catholic issue”, still less a “women’s issue”. It is extremely important that we understand this. We must not be distracted from what is really at stake, even though we’re still in the midst of a particularly intense battle with heavy crossfire and much chaos and smoke on the battlefield.

Even in the midst of all the confusion and media flurry, we can see that this is just one example of manipulating religious faith to conform to a political ideology. The “culture war” in which we are now engaged is about the trampling of conscience rights, and the attempt to obliterate any individual, group, institution — or religion — that stands in the way of a cultural agenda intent on promoting a post-Christian secularist religion.

We are seeing once again — with renewed if sobering clarity — the distorted ideas at the root of this conflict where human rights are sacrificed to a twisted notion of tolerance. It is a very basic battle over “the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing”.

“In Defense of Religious Freedom”, a statement by Evangelicals and Catholics Together, makes this clear. “Human freedom, and especially religious freedom, reflects God’s design for creation and His pattern of redemption”, the statement says.

Religious freedom is thus grounded in the character of God as revealed in the Bible and in the moral structure of the world that we can know through reason.... [R]eligious freedom has both personal and public dimensions. It is grounded in the dignity of the human person as possessed of a thirst for the truth and a capacity to know it. The state that recognizes religious freedom as inherent and inalienable, a civil right protected by law, thereby acknowledges its incompetence over the sanctuary of human conscience. Religious freedom is fundamental both to the freedom of the individual human person and to the sustaining of just and limited governments.10

The last paragraph of this statement is a resonant summary of why we are engaged in this uncivil war — and why we must act:

In all of this, we believe we are acting as Christians have been commanded to act, and speaking as citizens of mature democracies ought to speak. Our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and our baptism in the name of the Most Holy Trinity, compels us to defend the religious freedom of all ... who are created in the image of God.

Amen. We strongly encourage your participation in this effort to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all religious believers. We are obliged to be steadfast witnesses to the truth. And so may we be. With God’s help.


1 Online:

2 Full text of the letter:

3 List of bishops with links to their statements, maintained by blogger Thomas Peters:

4 Online:

5 Online:

6 The “Unacceptable” letter appears on the Becket Fund web site: The five original signers were John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America; Mary Ann Glendon, former ambassador to the Vatican and Harvard law professor; Robert P. George, Princeton University; O. Carter Snead, Professor of Law, University of Notre Dame; and Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. As of February 17, the list included among the religious leaders Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, and Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, Oregon.

7 Online:

8 Effort initiated by Helen Alvaré and Kim Daniels. News story:é. Letter and list of signers:

9 Further information at Family Research Council web site:

10 Posted February 17 on First Things web site:

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