Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of words have been spilled over the past few weeks regarding the Obama administration's attempt to force religious organizations to provide female employees with insurance that covers the cost of contraceptives. The debate has taken a predictable form: Opponents of the administration's actions, especially those associated with the Catholic Church, have portrayed the mandate as an all-out attack on religious freedom, while supporters have applauded the administration for it's "commitment to women's health." Some supporters have even attempted to redefine religious freedom to claim that not providing contraceptive coverage to female employees who desire it is an infringement of their religious freedom. (The latter argument would have been regarded as ludicrous only 20 or 30 years ago, but today it is asking too much for people to understand that the "free exercise of religion" means the freedom to exercise one's religion as it should be exercised, not as one chooses, according to one's own whims, to exercise it.)
As I write, administration officials have leaked word to major news outlets, including the New York Times, indicating that the Obama administration will offer a "compromise" later today. As the Times reports, however, the "compromise" is not designed to "mollify the Catholic bishops who have waged war against the rule," but to "shore up support among wavering Democrats, who have also expressed doubt about the rule, along with more liberal religious organizations and charities, who oppose the rule but not as vehemently as the Catholic leadership."
When is a compromise not a compromise? When the one offering the compromise has no intention of meeting his opponent part way. (UPDATE: See my coverage of President Obama's "compromise" in "When Is a Compromise Not a Compromise?")
From the beginning, the Obama administration has seemed strangely tone-deaf on the contraception mandate. Members of the administration have acted genuinely surprised that Catholics who supported the President's healthcare reform would oppose requiring religious organizations to provide contraceptive coverage.
That, I think, is because the administration simply does not see religious freedom, as traditionally defined, as an important issue. To justify forcing the Catholic Church to engage in material cooperation with an immoral act—because that is what the Catholic Church teaches artificial contraception to be—requires the administration to say, in essence (if not out loud), that religious beliefs that run counter to the administration's ideas of public health do not enjoy the protection of religious freedom.
Defenders of the Obama administration have tried to downplay the significance of the contraceptive mandate, making entirely irrelevant arguments about the number of Catholic women who, in defiance of Church teaching, use artificial contraception. The Obama administration, however, clearly regards this as a defining moment, and all Catholics in the United States—whether they comply with Church teaching or defy it—should see it as a defining moment as well.
If all that is required to force the Catholic Church to cooperate materially in acts that she regards as objectively immoral is a concern for "public health," then the administration could, quite reasonably, require that all hosts used for Communion be made of rice (so that they will be gluten-free), and all wine be alcohol-free. That such requirements would invalidate the sacrament would be of no concern to the federal government. Alcoholics and those who cannot tolerate gluten would be better off, in the government's eyes; the fact that they would be worse off spiritually is irrelevant.
The administration could make a similar argument for forcing the Catholic Church to recognize "marriages" between homosexuals. The lifestyle of "unmarried" homosexuals is, studies show, more fraught with physical dangers than the lifestyle of homosexuals in committed monogamous relationships. The fact that the Church regards homosexual activity, no matter the context in which it takes place, as objectively immoral is once again irrelevant. The needs of "public health" would trump the traditional understanding of religious freedom.
The ordination of women and of practicing homosexuals (even "married" ones) might not be able to be justified on the grounds of public health, but it could certainly be justified on the basis of anti discrimination laws. Just as many Catholic women currently use contraception despite the Church's teaching, many Catholics regard the priesthood as merely a role, even though the Church teaches that the Sacrament of Holy Orders is restricted to men only. Is it not a violation of a women's "religious freedom" to be denied ordination?
We could multiply examples ad infinitum, but there is no need to do so. The point is clear: Any Catholic who supports the Obama administration in this attack on religious liberty is helping to open a door that can and will be used in the future to launch further attacks. That is why many Protestant communions that long ago tossed out their historic teaching on contraception, some of which even pay today for contraception and (sometimes) abortions for their employees, are standing with the Catholic Church in opposing the Obama administration.
In the end, this battle is about more than whether you approve of, or even use, contraception yourself. This battle is about who gets to decide what the Catholic Church teaches, and how the Catholic Church practices her Faith.
Any Catholic who supports the Obama administration on the contraceptive mandate is saying, in effect, "The United States government, not the successors of the apostles, is the true arbiter of Catholic teaching and practice."
This is not merely a political battle; it is a spiritual one. Anyone who does not understand that places his or her soul in grave danger.
And anyone who does understand that, and still supports the Obama administration, needs our prayers.