Today, the San Francisco Chronicle published this "Open Forum" piece by His Excellency George Niederauer, Archbishop of San Francisco.
"It's about the tea," British newspapers proclaimed in 1774 as Parliament passed a bill to close Boston Harbor until the citizens of Massachusetts reimbursed the East India Company for the tea that had been thrown into the bay by American patriots. "It's all about the tea."
Of course it wasn't about the tea at all. It was about a fundamental diminishment of liberty that had led the American colonists to refuse to comply with a law that breached the freedom which was theirs by right.
Embedded in the seemingly innocuous new federal regulations pertaining to contraception is a radically new and sharply diminished approach to how government will define religious liberty in the future. Only those religious institutions that center directly upon the inculcation of faith, and which employ and serve predominantly members of that faith, are to be seen as fully religious institutions. Other religious institutions, which always in the past have been seen as religious employers by the federal government, are now labeled only marginally religious and given a sharply lesser degree of religious freedom.
The consequences for the religious landscape of our nation, and the architecture of religious liberty in the United States, are enormous and immensely troubling. It is a basic tenet not only of Catholic faith, but of most religious communities, that religiously organized service to the poor, the sick, the marginalized and the outcast is to be undertaken precisely as an act of faith. This religious mandate to serve those in need, regardless of the religious beliefs of those who are served, has been the foundation for the only real safety net that existed during most of our nation's history.
Now the very belief of religious communities that their faith compels them to reach out with care and consolation is cast as an obstacle to receiving the full measure of religious liberty in the United States.
The hospitals, homeless shelters, colleges, dining rooms for the poor, counseling clinics and senior centers operated by the religious communities across the nation are experiencing a dramatic reduction of their religious freedom, because of a small clause in health guidelines that promises to be the launching point for erecting a two-tier notion of religious freedom within the federal bureaucracy.
Not far into the future, this new notion of religious liberty could easily be used to require Catholic hospitals that serve Catholics and non-Catholics alike to perform abortions, i.e., to "offer a full range of reproductive services."
By way of contrast, here's one early instance of this country's great tradition of religious liberty in action: In 1804, as a result of the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans, formerly governed by the French Empire, passed to the jurisdiction of the United States of America. Sister Marie Therese Farjon of the Ursuline order of sisters, serving in New Orleans, wrote to President Thomas Jefferson to ask whether the sisters' property and ministries would be secure under the new government.
In a remarkable letter, President Jefferson, the author of the doctrine of separation of church and state, replied: "The principles of the Constitution and the government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules without interference from the civil authorities. I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect. Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States."
Apparently the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is convinced that it has found a better interpretation of religious liberty than Thomas Jefferson. I respectfully disagree.
The issue of contraception is extremely important in American society. There are frameworks though which the government's desire to make contraceptives widely available and affordable, and the Catholic Church's desire not to be involved in supplying contraceptives that conflict with Catholic faith, can both be accomplished.
So, the core disagreement is not about contraception, but about religious liberty.
Again, it's not about the tea.