In May 1953, the Polish government ordered the implementation of a decree giving the state the authority to appoint and remove Catholic priests and bishops throughout the country: The Catholic Church was to become a subsidiary of the Polish state; its clergy would act as agents of state power; and its educational and charitable activities would be approved (or rejected) by a state intent on bringing the most important institution in Polish civil society to heel. The bishops of Poland, who had tried for years to find a modus vivendi with the Communist regime, now drew the line. Meeting in Kraków under the leadership of the country’s primate, Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, the Polish episcopate issued a memorandum deploring the government’s attempt to turn the Church “into an instrument of the state” as a violation of the natures of both church and state. The memorandum concluded memorably: “We are not allowed to place the things of God on the altar of Caesar, Non possumus! [We cannot!].”
Americans accustomed to religious freedom may, at first blush, find it hard to imagine any possible analogy between our situation today, in the midst of the debate over the HHS “contraceptive mandate,” and that of Poland’s Christians in 1953; of course those brave men and women faced challenges far beyond those facing American believers today. Yet the structure of the moral and political argument, then and now, is eerily similar. In both cases, an overweening and arrogant government tries, through the use of coercive power, to make the Church a subsidiary of the state. In both cases, the state claims the authority to define religious ministries and services on its own narrow and secularist terms. In both cases, the state is attempting to co-opt as much of society as it can, while the Church is defending the prerogatives of civil society.
The March 14 statement of the Administrative Committeeof the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “United for Religious Freedom,” does not contain the kind of rhetorical flourishes that reached a dramatic coda in the Poles’ ringing “Non Possumus!” Still, the U.S. bishops have drawn an unmistakably clear line in the sand.
Resisting pressures from both within and without the Church to retreat from their hitherto firm and unified opposition to the administration’s HHS mandate and its bogus “accommodation” of religious concerns, the Administrative Committee — which includes bishops from across the spectrum of Catholic opinion and which does the conference’s most urgent business between the semi-annual meetings of the entire episcopate — strongly reaffirmed statements by the conference president, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, and by individual bishops, that both the mandate and the “accommodation” are unacceptable. Moreover, the statement affirms, against charges of exaggeration, that present administration policy represents a threat to religious freedom of “unprecedented magnitude” that must be “rejected.” And as for those who have long sought to play divide-and-conquer in this affair — from government officials to journalists to advocates of Catholic Lite — they, too, are sent an unmistakable signal in the March 14 statement: “We will not be divided, and we will continue forward as one.”
In a deft response to the spin and distortion that have characterized this debate for two months, “United for Religious Freedom” usefully clarifies just what the argument is not:
This is not about access to contraception, which is ubiquitous and inexpensive. . . . This is not about the religious freedom of Catholics only, but also of those who recognize that their cherished beliefs may be next on the block. This is not about the bishops’ somehow ‘banning contraception,’ when the U.S. Supreme Court took that issue off the table two generations ago. Indeed, this is not about the Church wanting to force anybody to do anything; it is, instead, about the federal government forcing the Church . . . to act against Church teachings. This is not a matter of opposition to universal health care, which has been a concern of the Bishops’ Conference since 1919, virtually at its founding. This is not a fight we want or asked for, but one forced upon us by government on its own timing. Finally, this is not a Republican or Democratic, a conservative or liberal issue; it is an American issue.
The Administrative Committee’s statement then crisply defines what the HHS mandate involves.
It involves an “unwarranted” and “extremely narrow” definition of who is a “religious employer ” — a definition that “creates and enforces a new distinction” between Catholic houses of worship, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Church’s charitable activities and its educational efforts. According to the administration’s regulatory scheme, the latter will become “second class” citizens, in a dramatic break with both Catholic tradition and federal law.
It involves an attempt by the government to compel Catholic institutions that serve those of many faiths and no faith to violate Catholic teachings within the Church’s own institutions, which is both an intrinsic injustice and a gross intrusion of state power into the Church’s evangelical mission.
And it involves a violation of the civil rights of individuals, who will be compelled to act against their conscientious convictions, “whether in their sponsoring of, and payment for, insurance as employers; their payment of insurance premiums as employees; or as insurers themselves.” This utter disregard for religious convictions and the rights of conscience is also, the bishops note, “unprecedented in federal law, which has long been generous in protecting the rights of individuals not to act against their religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
Thus those who expected the bishops to try and find some 50-yard line of agreement with the administration, a middle ground on which the Church’s institutions would be protected while individual Catholic employers would be left to the tender mercies of HHS, were proven exactly wrong: The bishops intend to defend religious freedom in full, and that defense will be all-in.
“United for Religious Freedom” concludes with a commitment to “accept any invitation to dialogue with the Executive Branch to protect the religious freedom that is rightly ours” — a formulation indicating that they will not come to any such further conversation as a supplicant, but as a defender of American tradition. The statement expresses support for a legislative remedy to the depredations of the HHS mandate, which, one assumes, will now focus on the Fortenberry bill in the House of Representatives. Finally, the statement reiterates the bishops’ determination to pursue a remedy in the federal courts, which is their likeliest path to success. The reference to both the Constitution and “federal laws that protect religious freedom” suggests that the conference knows it has a strong case under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and will vigorously pursue it.
In sum, the bishops have rebuffed calls for a tactical retreat; the analysts who have not grasped the sea-change in perspective of the bishops’ conference have been confounded; the Catholic Lite brigades have been challenged to think again about the gravity of the theological and constitutional issues involved in the mandate; and those who have supported the bishops thus far have been affirmed in their work.
There will be no compromise here, for there can be no compromise of first principles. Those who understand that will gather their energies and continue to defend both Catholic and American tradition.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.