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My turn: Religious liberty under attack? Get serious

Posted: July 31, 2012 - 12:01am

Following his fellow American bishops, Bishop Edward Burns argues that our religious liberties are under attack from the Affordable Care Act (Juneau Empire, A Bishop’s Perspective, June 10, 2012). This rhetoric is not simply disingenuous; its transparency makes it insulting. Outside the Tea Party, no one really believes that the administration wants to curtail our Constitutional freedom to worship as we choose (or choose not to: as a friend of mine notes, freedom of religion also means freedom from religion). No one believes that the government wants to shut down the Catholic Church in America. The episcopal rhetoric about our Constitutional rights being threatened resembles a Tea Party tactic and deserves only contempt. There may be serious issues here, but none of them threatens anyone’s religious liberty; they should be discussed rationally, without the mendacious rhetoric. 

The Affordable Care Act would not force anyone to use contraceptives against his or her religious convictions. It would require the Church, when operating as a certain kind of employer, to provide health benefits that include access to contraceptives. (And a new study from Johns Hopkins shows that contraception is health care: the research suggests that meeting demands for contraception in third-world countries could reduce global maternal mortality by nearly a third.) The bishops are concerned that the Church not provide access to something that Catholic doctrine opposes. That is the issue, not anyone’s “religious liberty.” If the bishops are serious about defending “religious liberty,” they must ensure that the Church’s non-Catholic employees are not forced to abide by Catholic doctrine. That means giving non-Catholic employees health benefits that give them the liberty to choose in good conscience and in conformity with their own religious beliefs whether to use contraceptives.

In fact, their Catholic employees need that freedom as well. I’m a Catholic by choice, not by birth. Raised in the Southern Baptist Church, I was exposed to Catholic thought in college and eventually joined the club after being influenced by some of the best Catholic writing from across the ages — Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Merton, and others. Those writers were concerned not primarily with what it means to be Catholic, but with what it means to be human, and they found the truest answers in the response to life and scripture that emerged as the Catholic tradition. Indeed, they weren’t following the Catholic tradition as much as they were creating it, shaping it, revitalizing it as the truest (and smartest) response to the majesty and mystery of life. The upshot of that response is fairly straightforward: Let love be your guide — love and a conscience free to discover what you truly believe to be good and right and holy. Aquinas says we must rely on the authority of our own senses to know the world and must have free recourse to follow our own conscience to do what is right. And in one of his sermons Augustine tells us, “Love and do what you will.” If we let love be our guide, then whatever we do will be right. The freedom to choose to do right is fundamental.

The Church took a long time to learn that it has nothing to fear from the free exploration of nature by science, and it’s still learning that it has nothing to fear from the free exploration of human nature by art; the Church also needs to relearn one of its own best messages: that every human being must be free to act in accordance with his or her own conscience, which is, by definition, our understanding of the difference between right and wrong. If there is one thing that Augustine and Aquinas are very clear about, it is this: the only way any of us ever make the right choice is by conforming our consciences to God’s will, and we can do that only because we have, by God’s grace, a free will and an intellect capable of understanding what is right. We only choose right, choose well, because God gave us the ability and responsibility to do so, not because the Church says so, and certainly not because the bishops try to frighten us that our religious liberty is in danger.

• Hale lives in Juneau, where he works for NOAA Fisheries.

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