Health man­dates and per­se­cu­tion present a les­son in pri­or­i­ties

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - RELIGION -

Twoitems are worth not­ing this week. To­gether, they’re a les­son in pri­or­i­ties.

Here’s the first item. A doc­tor friend quipped re­cently that Amer­ica is be­com­ing a coun­try where it’s eas­ier to opt out of the Pledge of Al­le­giance than to avoid the HHS man­date. Ex­pres­sions of na­tional loy­alty may be op­tional, she said. Pay­ing for every­body’s birth con­trol is not.

My friend over­states her case — but not by very much. For the past two years the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­fused any real com­pro­mise on a Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices (HHS) man­date that forces most em­ployer health plans to cover con­tra­cep­tive and abor­ti­fa­cient ser­vices. This, in a na­tion where free or low-cost birth con­trol is al­ready widely avail­able. This, in a coun­try FROM THE

PUL­PIT where Planned Par­ent­hood al­ready re­ceives hun­dreds of mil­lions of fed­eral dol­lars ev­ery year.

The U.S. Catholic bishops, along with many other re­li­gious and sec­u­lar en­ti­ties, have fought the man­date for good rea­son. It’s co­er­cive, un­nec­es­sary and miserly in its lack of pro­tec­tions for re­li­gious and moral belief. Many Catholic-re­lated min­istries and or­ga­ni­za­tions will be forced — di­rectly, or in­di­rectly through a process of ver­bal and le­gal gym­nas­tics — to col­lude in ser­vices that vi­o­late their re­li­gious con­vic­tions. To no one’s sur­prise, more than 100 law­suits are now pend­ing against the man­date’s ap­pli­ca­tion.

In re­sponse, ev­ery HHS adjustment to the man­date has so far been min­i­mal; empty of any ro­bust sense of re­li­gious free­dom. The lat­est gov­ern­ment “ac­com­mo­da­tion” — is­sued on Aug . 22 – is just as in­ad­e­quate as all the oth­ers. Both the U.S. bishops and or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Becket Fund for Re­li­gious Lib­erty have al­ready voiced their frus­tra­tion.

Our cur­rent lead­er­ship

is, how­ever, con­sis­tent. Its dis­in­ter­est in re­li­gious lib­erty con­cerns here at home seems repli­cated in its for­eign pol­icy. And that brings us to my sec­ond item.

The 1998 law that es­tab­lished the U.S. Com­mis­sion on In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom made the United States unique among ma­jor na­tions in rank­ing free­dom of belief among its top for­eign pol­icy goals. But in re­cent years, Wash­ing­ton’s in­ter­est in pro­tect­ing and ex­pand­ing the rights of re­li­gious mi­nori­ties abroad has been tepid — or worse. The grue­some mur­der of jour­nal­ist James Fo­ley by Is­lamic ex­trem­ists this Au­gust riv­eted the at­ten­tion of the world. But this kind of bar­barism isn’t new.

Vi­o­lence against Chris­tians and other re­li­gious mi­nori­ties in the Mid­dle East has been es­ca­lat­ing for years, from beat­ings and ex­tor­tion, to bombed churches, to the ab­duc­tion and forced con­ver­sion of young Christian women, to the mur­der of Christian clergy and lay lead­ers. Eth­nic cleans­ing in the Balkans drew world ac­tion be­hind Amer­i­can lead­er­ship.

The ex­ter­mi­na­tion of re­li­gious mi­nori­ties in the Mid­dle East — what Syr­iac Catholic Pa­tri­arch Ig­nace Joseph III Younan calls “at­tempted geno­cide” — has so far drawn a very dif­fer­ent re­sponse.

How should we as Catholics re­spond? We can start by re­al­iz­ing that a dis­com­fort about deal­ing with re­li­gious lib­erty is­sues abroad has been part of the cul­ture of Amer­ica’s for­eign pol­icy bu­reau­cracy for a long time, de­spite the 1998 law. Our cur­rent na­tional lead­er­ship has sim­ply made it worse. As much as we love our coun­try — and Catholics have proven that love again and again in pub­lic ser­vice and in com­bat — our pri­mary loy­alty as Catholics is to Je­sus Christ, to the Church as our com­mu­nity of faith and to our fel­low Chris­tians. They come first; and if in our hearts we don’t place them first, then we need to take a hard look at what we mean when we say we’re “Catholic.”

There’s some­thing wrong with us — not just wrong with our Catholic faith, but wrong with our hu­man­ity — if that doesn’t leave us ap­palled … and also more alert to the chang­ing cli­mate of our own coun­try. Here in Amer­ica, no­body’s paint­ing “N” for Nazarene on Christian houses; in fact, even men­tion­ing the idea sounds out­landish and melo­dra­matic. But not if you’re in Mo­sul. In the so-called “Caliphate,” an “N” on your home means con­vert, leave or die. And again, this sort of ex­trem­ist sav­agery isn’t new. It’s sim­ply more ob­vi­ous and wide­spread.

Here at home, the HHS man­date fight will now be de­cided in the courts. But in the long run, as a na­tion, we’ll get the mea­sure of re­li­gious lib­erty we de­serve based on the kind of peo­ple we elect to fed­eral of­fice — some­thing we need to re­mem­ber in an elec­tion year. And as for Chris­tians suf­fer­ing in the Mid­dle East, we need to see them as mem­bers of our own fam­ily whose wit­ness hum­bles and de­mands sol­i­dar­ity from us all. We need to pray for them zeal­ously and con­stantly. But our sym­pa­thy and con­cern aren’t enough. We ur­gently need to build on our prayers with our ac­tions — and our fi­nan­cial support.

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