This guest blog comes courtesy of John O'Callaghan, the director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame:
On Pentecost Sunday, May 27th, a New York Times editorial accused several Catholic bishops of the United States along with many Catholic institutions like my employer, the University of Notre Dame, of engaging in "a dramatic stunt, full of indignation but built on air." Why? Last week those bishops along with those Catholic institutions filed suit in federal court against the government. They claim an infringement under the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act upon the free exercise of religion caused by the Health and Human Services Mandate that will require all institutions providing health insurance to participate in making available in their employee benefit plans abortifacient drugs, medical sterilizations and contraceptive drugs.
Apparently concerned to make sure that its editorial reflected the government’s narrow definition of what constitutes a church or a church institution for the purposes of exemption from the mandate, the Times made sure not to call those institutions "Catholic" institutions, but, rather, “Catholic-related groups.” Certain Catholic conservatives (or should I say Catholic-related conservatives?) must be enjoying that particular phrase—it seems I do not work for a Catholic university, but a “Catholic-related group," a claim they have been making all along. I might suppose such a journal of opinion as America is not a Catholic magazine but a “Catholic-related magazine.”
No doubt many of my fellow citizens, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, as well as friends who work with me at Notre Dame share the judgment of the Times, and do not understand why these "Catholic-related groups" have responded to the government's mandate in this way. Indeed many probably object to it very strongly. So, why then did the bishops and these institutions do it?
Well, I am writing this on that same Feast of Pentecost. It is the feast when Catholics and Christians throughout the world celebrate that moment, 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, when his followers huddled around in fear amongst one another in the "upper room," afraid to give to the world the gift that they had been given, the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ Risen, triumphing over death and making that triumph available to all. Through that resurrection all human beings received a destiny of love of one another in union with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Yet Christ's followers were afraid to give to others that gift, so the Holy Spirit descended upon them strengthening them to go to all nations and give it away freely.
Pentecost reminds us that it is the task of all Christians to leave the rooms in which they huddle in fear of others' thoughts and actions, and despite their failings make manifest the gift that is offered to us all. Today in the United States the freedom to give that gift as the church understands it—a vision of how human life flourishes in caring for the sick, educating the young, feeding the hungry, comforting the dying, and so on—is threatened by those who hold the political and legal power to coerce the lives of citizens and the institutions within which they assemble. The HHS Mandate requires church institutions of any sort, not just Catholic, to act in ways contrary to what they believe is part of that gift they would offer the world. It claims the authority to coerce the lives of Christians precisely as Christians, if they dare to act beyond the walls of their church buildings in concert with and for people who do not share their faith.
It is intellectually lazy to reduce the motives of the bishops and those church institutions to mere partisan politics, as the Times has done, as if the University of Notre Dame, for instance, were stumping for Mitt Romney or could not resist the pressure of a few right- wing prelates. But charity demands more of us than easy bromides about politics and motives. This mandate and the lawsuits that confront it are not about the next election. Nor is the suit brought against it by any stretch of the imagination about “imposing one church’s doctrine on everyone,” as the Times claims. When we consider all those Christian hospitals, schools, soup kitchens, adoption agencies, immigrant aid agencies, retirement communities and legal aid associations that spring from the life of Christ, no non-Christian is coerced to work for them, though many do work, and no one is coerced to be served by the church, though many, many are served.
With this mandate and the narrow exception that goes along with it, the government claims the power and authority to determine for Christians what their Christian service, that gift proclaimed on Pentecost, will look like. No right wing hack, Dorothy Day regularly warned of the intrusive and coercive power of the state to structure the life of the church as it saw fit when it saw fit. The church is no longer to work with the government and civic institutions to help others, to give to as many as possible the gift that Christ Himself gave it to share. Rather, the church is to be made to work for the government on the government's terms. Christians' only alternative is to huddle within the walls of their churches in fear of the powers of the world, speaking the good news only to themselves, living the life of faith only amongst themselves, feeding only themselves, educating only themselves, comforting only themselves.
In the Roman empire many Christians living the gift of Pentecost suffered blood martyrdom at the hands of the secular power that ruled over them precisely because they did not huddle within their homes amongst themselves. They went out into the world; and whenever the Romans would flee the sick and dying, the Christians would stay and care for them. One of the great ironies of the HHS mandate is that the secular power of the United States government, finally and rightly trying to address the crisis in health care in our nation, would take it upon itself to tell Christians how to do it, we who have been doing it for 2000 years. In my own city of South Bend, Indiana, the only two hospitals were founded by the church. One is Catholic, St. Joe's, the other is Methodist, Memorial. My son is now receiving intensive medical therapy over the course of a month at St. Mary's, a Catholic hospital in another city. I don't ask whether everyone that hospital employs is Catholic, or whether everyone it serves is Catholic. (They are not.) But it is more than just the crucifixes in the rooms and the chapel in the hospital that make it Catholic--it is that the care given comes from the life of Christ given to the church. This undiscriminating care for the sick, the poor, the downtrodden has been the life of the church from the beginning, since Pentecost. And the early Christians were willing to live out this life of caritas even if it meant exposing themselves to the secular power and death.
Now it would be absurd to think that any Christian will suffer physical martyrdom and death for opposing the HHS Mandate. The government will not be coming to our doors to throw us to the lions. Christians must avoid hyperbole. And yet: "Martyr," as any well-catechized Christian knows, means witness. The early Christians were put to death for their witness to Christ, and so they were called "witnesses." So it is not absurd to suggest that the church's witness to the Gospel, and Christians themselves, will suffer a kind of spiritual death when the power of the state defines for it what that gift of the Holy Spirit will be.
This is no bodily death, sure enough. It is rather the death of the Spirit of Pentecost, when as Christians we are to be forced back into the locked room—locked now from the outside by the force of law—allowed out only on condition that we do not speak of or act on what we have heard and seen, unless we have state approval. Insofar as the life of the church is to present to the world the gift of new life in Christ, let there be no doubt that the HHS Mandate intends the death of the church of Pentecost. And that is why it is so important that the church institutions that have sued the federal government do everything in their power to resist the coercive power of the state in its effort to remake the church in its own image.