I was asked last year to be a member of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Freedom for the United States bishops’ conference. I have been pleased to serve in this capacity.
The purpose of our committee is to respond to the truly historic challenges being leveled against the religious liberty of Catholic colleges, hospitals and charities by the current federal Department of Health and Human Services.
In its interpretation of the Affordable Care Act legislation passed a year ago by Congress, HHS has now ruled that even private employers who adamantly oppose contraception and abortion must provide to their employees health insurance plans that cover government-approved forms of birth control, including abortifacients and sterilization.
Definition too narrow
In a stunning declaration, HHS has also narrowly defined a religious employer (and thus an employer who is exempt from the mandate), as one who hires employees only from its own faith community and offers services only to people who are official members.
Hence, while we believe our parishes are (probably) covered under the definition of a “religious institution,” our Catholic Charities, hospitals and colleges are not. In other words, they will be compelled, by the force of the state, to support and subsidize practices morally abhorrent to their foundational principles.
The historic struggle against the abhorrent HHS mandate is ultimately not about contraception. Neither is it about health care, nor the rights of women. It is about the intrusion of the state into the fundamental rights of conscience and the right of religious bodies to govern and guide their own institutions. Such an intrusion should greatly alarm all citizens, not simply believers.
On April 12, 2012, the USCCB’s ad hoc committee for Religious Freedom published a document, entitled, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty.” I recommend that you read and study this document.
In “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the bishops suggested the idea of sponsoring a “Fortnight for Freedom,” which would be a two-week period from June 21 until July 4 in which a schedule of prayer, fasting and catechesis could be observed to raise awareness of the present threats to religious freedom and conscience protection.
- What: Vigil Mass with Archbishop John Nienstedt and Bishop Lee Piché celebrating patronal feast day of archdiocese — the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul — and commemorating the Fortnight for Freedom initiative.
- When: 5:15 p.m., June 28
- Where: Cathedral of St. Paul
The Minnesota Catholic Conference, in conjunction with the archdiocese, is sponsoring a series of educational events on topics related to religious liberty. The first event is entitled “Religious Liberty: Our Most Cherished Freedom,” and will be held at Nativity of Our Lord parish in St. Paul on June 21, 2012, at 7 p.m. More information about this and other events can be found at https://www.mncatholic.org.
As native Minnesotan Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis has said: “Religious liberty is our first, most cherished freedom. The threat the HHS mandate poses to the Catholic Church is no small matter.”
I believe it is time for Catholics to stand up and be counted!
God bless you!
Archbishop John C. Nienstedt is the 11th Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.