A Message from the Bishop – The debate is about Catholic identity, not contraception

My dear sisters and brothers,

We have been hearing a lot lately about what is described as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate.

It seems in the popular mind this is about contraception. But the real issue is whether or not the government can define what a religion is and, as in this particular case, narrow it merely to an institution which serves and hires only its own people.

Today that question about freedom of conscience is being argued over the right of the Church to maintain its view about the morality of contraception. Yet the broader issue of religious liberty is also being fought over other issues as well. For example, there is a question whether punitive immigration laws, such as those recently passed in Alabama and Arizona, will allow for the freedom of conscience to provide immigrants with rides to Church or permit Catholics to offer food or shelter to the undocumented.

Under the definition of the HHS mandate, only the Catholic Church building itself qualifies as a religious institution. Catholic schools, hospitals and services such as Catholic Charities do not quality under the government’s definition. The real issue is an understanding of what it means to be a religious entity.

The works of the Catholic Church flow from our faith, our belief that comes from our understanding of Matthew 25: 31-46: “Whatsoever you did to the least of my sisters and brothers, you did unto me.”

We serve others not because they are Catholic but because we are. To limit our understanding to what it means to be a Catholic institution to merely worship in a Catholic church is not an accurate or honest reflection of what our faith means. As the apostle St. James writes, “faith without good works is dead.” Our identity as Catholics revolves around what we believe (doctrine) and how we live what we believe (practice).

To be able to memorize and recite the Creed, yet not to live the implication of what we say we believe is merely an intellectual exercise.

Therefore the issue of the HHS mandate is not about simply contraception or the necessity of Catholic Church institutions being required to pay for government-mandated services. It is, rather, about our right to define for ourselves what it means to be Catholic and what is a work or ministry of the Catholic Church.

That is the more essential and fundamental right that is being contested. It is important that we understand the issue and not be distracted by what are peripheral concerns. Today the question focuses on contraception. Tomorrow the same discussion could emerge over the rights of the Church to welcome immigrants, the strangers among us described in Matthew’s Gospel. Or it could emerge over the issue of Catholic education. These issues are, in their own way, important. Still they are simply touching on the bigger issue of our fundamental right to self-identify as a faith community. That is why the struggle over the HHS mandate remains so vital.

Fraternally in Christ,

Bishop Joseph Galante

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