Catholics in the United States have never represented a monolith with regard to any given issue. In many respects this is a good thing, as Catholicism and Catholic teaching transcend any given ideology or political party. Simply put, Catholicism is the opposite of ideology and thus seeks to challenge ideological constructs that oppose authentic freedom and truth.
The challenge is that sometimes issues come along that, given their moral importance, require unity, leadership and vigilance among Catholics. When unity and vigilance are wanting among Catholics regarding critical moral issues, a lack of formation often underlies the confusion.
One thing that has been most concerning in the wake of the HHS mandate is the indifference and apathy among some Catholics with regard to the issue of religious freedom. The HHS mandate, which compels Catholic institutions to violate their own moral teachings and conscience, strikes at the heart of religious freedom.
Religious freedom itself is at the heart of the American experiment and has been an enduring American value for centuries. It is necessary for Catholics to be well-formed with regard to the issue of religious freedom and to be vigilant in protection of those rights that come from nature and nature’s God. This is no time for confusion or apathy.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore has called religious freedom one of the most important social justice issues of our time. Social justice, akin to legal justice, is the justice that exists among individuals in a society and/or the justice that exists among individuals and the state. The classic definition of justice is to give each person what is due them. Something is said to be unjust when one is deprived of something due them. St. Thomas Aquinas and many Western jurists and philosophers have adopted this classic definition of justice.
In addition to this concept of justice, the Old Testament biblical tradition provides an even richer understanding of justice. In the Hebrew Scriptures, justice and righteousness are interchangeable and amount to “right relationship” with God and neighbor.
In examining the present case of the HHS mandate, both concepts of justice are offended by the government’s action. Religious freedom is a natural right that comes from God. The Declaration of Independence states that governments are formed by men to secure the unalienable rights given by God. Religious freedom is explicitly protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Additionally, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) provides a strong and vigorous federal legal right to one’s free exercise of religion.
When the government, in the case of the HHS mandate, seeks to compel a religious institution or persons to violate their moral teachings or conscience, it fails to give them their due under the law and fails to remain in right relationship with its citizens. Accordingly, its action can be described as unjust.
This was the judgment of U.S. District Court Judge John Kane, who recently issued a stay of the HHS mandate, which was challenged by a private Catholic employer who objected to providing health care services that violated his moral beliefs. Judge Kane said that the interest of the free exercise of religion outweighed the government’s interest in compelling employers to offer birth-control services.
Catholic social teaching perspective
In addition to being unjust, the HHS mandate offends several principles of Catholic social teaching (CST.)
First, religious freedom and freedom of conscience flow directly from the dignity of the human person, which is the preeminent principle of CST. When governments attempt to inhibit this basic freedom, they cease to respect the inherent dignity of their citizens.
Second, the HHS mandate violates one of the most basic duties of any government which is to respect and secure the fundamental rights of its citizens.
Third, the HHS mandate violates the principle of subsidiarity by not providing sufficient room and freedom to intermediate associations to carry out their work and mission.
Finally, the HHS mandate inhibits the common good of society by not advancing those societal conditions that promote human flourishing. Let’s not be confused as Catholics: the HHS mandate is contrary to our American ideals, is unjust and offends several principles of Catholic social teaching.
Father Griffith, a priest of the archdiocese, is a faculty fellow of law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, a fellow in the Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis.