Two items are worth noting this week. Together, they’re a lesson in priorities.
Here’s the first item. A doctor friend quipped recently that America is becoming a country where it’s easier to opt out of the Pledge of Allegiance than to avoid the HHS mandate. Expressions of national loyalty may be optional, she said. Paying for everybody’s birth control is not.
My friend overstates her case — but not by very much. For the past two years the current administration has refused any real compromise on a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that forces most employer health plans to cover contraceptive and abortifacient services. This, in a nation where free or low cost birth control is already widely available. This, in a country where Planned Parenthood already receives hundreds of millions of federal dollars every year.
The U.S. Catholic bishops, along with many other religious and secular entities, have fought the mandate for good reason. It’s coercive, unnecessary and miserly in its lack of protections for religious and moral belief. Many Catholic-related ministries and organizations will be forced — directly, or indirectly through a process of verbal and legal gymnastics — to collude in services that violate their religious convictions. To no one’s surprise, more than 100 lawsuits are now pending against the mandate’s application.
In response, every HHS adjustment to the mandate has so far been minimal; empty of any robust sense of religious freedom. The latest government “accommodation” — issued on August 22 – is just as inadequate as all the others. Both the U.S. bishops and organizations like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty have already voiced their frustration.
Our current leadership is, however, consistent. Its disinterest in religious liberty concerns here at home seems replicated in its foreign policy. And that brings us to my second item.
The 1998 law that established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom made the United States unique among major nations in ranking freedom of belief among its top foreign policy goals. But in recent years, Washington’s interest in protecting and expanding the rights of religious minorities abroad has been tepid — or worse. The gruesome murder of journalist James Foley by Islamic extremists this August riveted the attention of the world. But this kind of barbarism isn’t new.
Violence against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East has been escalating for years, from beatings and extortion, to bombed churches, to the abduction and forced conversion of young Christian women, to the murder of Christian clergy and lay leaders. Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans drew world action behind American leadership.
The extermination of religious minorities in the Middle East — what Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan calls “attempted genocide” — has so far drawn a very different response.
How should we as Catholics respond? We can start by realizing that a discomfort about dealing with religious liberty issues abroad has been part of the culture of America’s foreign policy bureaucracy for a long time, despite the 1998 law. Our current national leadership has simply made it worse. As much as we love our country — and Catholics have proven that love again and again in public service and in combat — our primary loyalty as Catholics is to Jesus Christ, to the Church as our community of faith and to our fellow Christians. They come first; and if in our hearts we don’t place them first, then we need to take a hard look at what we mean when we say we’re “Catholic.”
In that regard, the HHS mandate dispute does have one good effect. It helps us see just how eager some of us are to find a way to avoid conflict, to get along, to compromise our convictions. Few of us want to think too deeply about how and why the mandate fight happened in the first place, or where it’s likely to lead. It’s easier to blame the Church for being stubborn or conducting a phony “war on women.”
Meanwhile, fellow believers are being murdered overseas simply for being Christian. There’s something wrong with us — not just wrong with our Catholic faith, but wrong with our humanity — if that doesn’t leave us appalled … and also more alert to the changing climate of our own country. Here in America, nobody’s painting “N” for Nazarene on Christian houses; in fact, even mentioning the idea sounds outlandish and melodramatic. But not if you’re in Mosul. In the so-called “Caliphate,” an “N” on your home means convert, leave or die. And again, this sort of extremist savagery isn’t new. It’s simply more obvious and widespread.
Here at home, the HHS mandate fight will now be decided in the courts. But in the long run, as a nation, we’ll get the measure of religious liberty we deserve based on the kind of people we elect to federal office — something we need to remember in an election year. And as for Christians suffering in the Middle East, we need to see them as members of our own family whose witness humbles and demands solidarity from us all. We need to pray for them zealously and constantly. But our sympathy and concern aren’t enough. We urgently need to build on our prayers with our actions — and our financial support.
NOTE: A special voluntary collection will be taken up in parishes of the archdiocese on the weekend of September 6-7 or 20-21, depending on local parish preference. Donated funds will be used to assist suffering Christians in the Middle East. Given the many demands already faced by parishes, some may be unable to participate. Individuals may therefore contribute directly at Catholic Relief Services.