Lent a time to reflect on religious freedom

By | February 16, 2012

Now what if they were to attend church this Wednesday, leave, go to work and hear their bosses say, “Wipe those ashes off your forehead. We don’t show off our religion here.”

Would they bristle? “Hey, we have freedom of religion in this country!”

Well, the Catholic Church has been challenged about more than ashes on foreheads. We’ve been told to pay for something our faith says is wrong.

On Jan. 20, U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) reaffirmed the 2010 mandate of the Affordable Care Act that orders nearly all health plans to cover FDA-approved prescription contraceptive drugs and devices, as well as surgical sterilization, as of Aug. 1.

This applies directly to the Catholic Church and its institutions: including hospitals and service agencies.

It’s no secret the Catholic faith teaches that contraceptives — many of which are abortifacient in nature — are wrong. It teaches that sterilization is wrong. So, logically, Catholics believe that being made to pay for these is also wrong.

This is religious freedom — not being forced to do what your faith says is wrong.

After much outcry, President Obama, on Feb. 10, announced an accommodation: religious institutions would not have to pay for this coverage. How it would be paid for, however, remains vague.

Insurance companies never “absorb a cost.” We — whether private businesses or participants in self-funded church insurance plans — will quite likely still have to pay.

In the past 236 years, people from many nations have fled to the U.S. to be able to practice their faith freely. We Americans — not just we Catholics — believe this means not being forced to do what we believe is wrong. But our government, through the HHS mandate, said that isn’t so.

Church leaders are studying the Feb. 10 announcement, but as days pass, skepticism grows. Immediately after the Feb. 10 announcement, the U.S. bishops said the mandate “is both unsupported in the law and remains a grave moral concern.”

On Feb. 12, Capuchin Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, whose archdiocesan Catholic Health Care Services is the nation’s seventh-largest faith-based provider of long-term-care services to the poor and elderly, voiced another concern in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “… we cannot afford to be fooled — yet again — by evasive and misleading allusions to the administration’s alleged ‘flexibility’ on such issues.”

That is a major concern — ongoing government evasiveness on the mandate.

On Feb 13, Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan said, “What (Obama) offered was next to nothing. There’s no change, for instance, in … this grossly restrictive definition of what constitutes a religious entity.”

Finally, the U.S. bishops’ Feb. 13 blog noted that the Feb. 10 accommodation does not appear in the finalized mandate.

Certainly most Catholics have heard about this — even those who attend church infrequently.

But maybe even we who attend Mass regularly haven’t really “heard.” Maybe our hearts haven’t been touched.

That’s what Lent is about: We are called to let God touch our hearts. We are called to do better at following Christ. We receive ashes as a sign of our desire to do that. We are called, as Americans and as Catholics, to be ready to pay a price for our beliefs. Christ’s cross shows that.

This HHS mandate isn’t about doing better. It doesn’t begin to address religious concerns that are — yes indeed — related to physical health as well as the health of souls. After all, there’s not a lot about contraceptives that is truly healthy: not for women, not for the stability of marriages, not for life in the womb.

Challenge is a theme of Lent. People approach Ash Wednesday to be challenged. After all, we aren’t required to go to church on Ash Wednesday. Yet we go. Something calls us.

This Ash Wednesday, and throughout Lent, let’s answer. Let’s become informed on this and other issues touching our beliefs. Let us remind Americans of all faiths that religious freedom means that higher laws cannot be superseded by government mandates. Let’s echo the last part of the prophet Joel’s Ash Wednesday warning: “Spare, O LORD, your people, and make not your heritage a reproach, with the nations ruling over them!”

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