Hed: Checking the Air Outside
By Bishop David A. Zubik from the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh
I have a friend who smokes. Like most smokers I know, he’s not very proud of it. Whenever he has to have a cigarette, he excuses himself by saying that he is going to be “checking the air outside” for a few minutes. I hope and pray that the day will come soon when he manages to quit. But in the meantime, I live with his euphemism about “checking the air outside.”
In last week’s “Bridging the Gap” column (“To Hell with You” 1/27/12), I wrote about the Obama Administration’s decision to require by August 2013 that all individual and group health insurance plans cover and subsidize contraception, sterilization procedures and pharmaceuticals that even result in abortion. Shortly after the column appeared on our diocesan website, I was inundated with e-mails, phone calls and requests for interviews. I read them all, talked to as many as I could, responded to every interview. It was my way of “checking the air outside” to find out what people had to say.
This mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services would apply to every employer—including non-profits; including the Catholic Church in its hospitals, universities, colleges, nursing homes, and social service agencies. My response was that, in attempting to force this through by mandate, the Obama Administration was essentially saying “to hell with you,” particularly to the Catholic community by dismissing our beliefs, our religious freedom and our freedom of conscience. We—and every employer and employee—are being told not only to violate our beliefs, but to pay directly for that violation and help to subsidize the imposition of a contraceptive and abortion culture on every person in the United States. I was gratified by so much support, not for me personally, but for the support of the Catholic position on the issue by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. I’d like to express my appreciation to all who wrote and to our local media that gave this, for the most part, very fair coverage. I thank them for allowing me time for “checking the air outside” on this vital issue.
I also had the opportunity for “checking the air outside” with those who disagreed with me. I found that their complaints essentially centered on the following few issues:
- 1. “They didn’t like the language.” Some people thought I was saying “to hell with the president.” I was not! I never would do that! I have too much respect for the office of the president to ever make such a statement. What I was saying was that the decision to retain this mandate was a complete and total dismissal of people of faith, of our freedom as Catholics and the rights of all citizens of faith to practice their faith without imposing on them immoral conditions. You and I, who wrote so many letters to the Obama administration this past fall, made that position clear. The Obama Administration effectively responded, “to hell with you.” They dismissed us. They dismissed people of all faiths. If some thought that the very use of that phrase was not appropriate for a bishop, all I can say is that’s what it felt like—to me and to many others. The mandate was presented as a bureaucratic fiat without appeal for which we have a year to knuckle under. If that isn’t saying “to hell with you,” I don’t know what does.
- 2. “Some Catholics use artificial birth control, so what’s the complaint?” The issue of artificial birth control use and abortion-causing drugs are a matter of serious concern to us as the Catholic Church. But what is also at stake is freedom of religion. The issue is the government imposing on the Church that which directly contradicts the teaching of the Church. The issue is the taking away from the citizens of our country our constitutional right to religious liberty. The issue is forcing every employer—those of religion and those of no religion—to pay for this mandated coverage of contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs, no matter the dictates of their conscience. The issue is the right of the Church to be able to live its beliefs without contrary beliefs and practices being imposed by departments of the federal government.
- 3. “The Church shouldn’t get involved in politics.” For as long as our government has existed, we as citizens have had the right—and responsibility—to speak out on the issues of the day, inclusive of churches, people of faith. Churches were never required by the Constitution to be irrelevant, required to be silent, required by government fiat to engage in activities they consider immoral. This isn’t “politics.” It is an issue of fundamental human freedom, fundamental religious freedom, guaranteed and protected by the First Amendment of our nation’s Constitution.
- 4. “The Church doesn’t care about women’s health.” I think that is when my head nearly exploded. The truth be told, the Catholic Church throughout this country virtually created health care in the United States. In Pittsburgh, the first hospital, Mercy Hospital, was opened under Church auspices within a year of the founding of our diocese and long before the government responded. The Church’s health care ministry was built primarily by Catholic women and has served women of all faiths and no faith from its inception. What we don’t do, can’t do, won’t do is consider pregnancy a disease equivalent to the flu. Or to be “cured” by death.
- 5. “This is what happens when Catholic institutions ‘take’ federal money.” This mandate has nothing to do with the Church “taking” federal money. Rather, this mandate is about Church money, the money of citizens, being used against their will, against their conscience, against their beliefs. This mandate is being imposed on everyone—on every employer, even if they have never taken a dime of government funds. Everyone—Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and nonbelievers alike—will be forced to pay for this as an employer or as an employee, and sometimes through their free-will contributions to the Church and Catholic social service agencies. In particular, this mandate will be imposed on us as Catholics and bought and paid for by us as Catholics.
- 6. “This seems like the Church is just trying to impose its morality on everyone else.” No way! Rather, this is the president and his administration, the government trying to impose its morality, or lack thereof, on the Church and the rest of society through bureaucratic fiat and government intrusion on religious freedom. This action tramples on everybody’s rights!
This issue cannot be ignored, shelved, put on the back burner, or lose our fervor. You and I, and people of all faiths, are not going to, nor can we, spend the next year figuring out how to violate our consciences. We must fight this together. The thought struck me since writing to you last week that, in addition to writing our leaders, our president and our federal representatives to protest this mandate, we should also place telephone calls to their respective offices. Their numbers are listed on this page. In so doing, you and I charge them, like the friend of my opening story, to “check the air outside.” We need to challenge them, our federal leaders, not to dismiss us but to listen to us, i.e., to “check the air outside” of their mindset, and to respect us—as Catholics and non-Catholics; as believers and nonbelievers; as citizens; as women and men—who have the right guaranteed by our ancestors in this country and by our Constitution to religious liberty. Thank you for all you are doing. And please remember with this issue—and every issue we face—to be grateful that “Nothing is impossible with God.”