Welcome   |   Login   |   Sign Up   |

CONSCIENCE PROTECTION/ The Church's right to govern itself at stake

SUZANNE LEWIS comments on the history of libertas ecclesiae, the Church’s freedom to govern itself, and how that history is being overturned in the new health care law.

Thomas Jefferson  by Rembrandt Peale Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.  - Thomas Jefferson, 1809

On Friday, January 27, Bishop David A. Zubik, of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, published a strongly-worded statement concerning the new Health and Human Services mandate, which would force all businesses and institutions with more than 50 employees to offer a government-approved health insurance plan that covers contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients. In his statement, Zubik writes, "Kathleen Sebelius and through her, the Obama administration, have said 'To Hell with You' to the Catholic faithful of the United States." Bishop Zubik is not the only US Catholic bishop to write to condemn the HHS mandate. To date, over one hundred bishops have been documented as writing on this subject.

Are the US bishops venturing into party politics, in a way heretofore unseen? The answer is a firm "no." The US bishops have not suddenly changed their pastoral approach to Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, which contains the Church's teaching on contraception and birth control, in favor of a political approach. They have written, in a document that seeks to answer the questions of the faithful, that they are concerned with something entirely different: "a law in effect since 1973 says that no individual is required to take part in 'any part of a health service program or research activity funded in whole or in part under a program administered by the Secretary of Health and Human Services' if it is 'contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions' (42 USC 300a-7 (d)). Even the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which requires most of its health plans to cover contraception, exempts religiously-affiliated plans and protects the conscience rights of health professionals in the other plans. Currently, no federal law requires anyone to purchase, sell, sponsor, or be covered by a private health plan that violates his or her conscience." The US bishops, therefore, are concerned with the freedom of conscience, first of all, because the Catholic objection to the new HHS mandate does not concern this or that group's decision to use contraception but rather over a principle that is almost as old as the Church herself: libertas ecclesiae or the freedom of the Church to govern herself.