Our Bishops, thank God, are insisting on the fact that the fight against the HHS Mandate is not just about contraception. It’s about religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Cardinal Timothy Dolan has clearly stated that “the battle over the HHS mandate is bigger than contraception. It is a freedom of religion battle”.
Bishop Lori has said that “the need to defend citizens’ rights of conscience is the most critical issue before our country right now. We will continue our defense of conscience rights through all available legal means.” Religious freedom is at the heart of democracy and rooted in the dignity of the human person.
As Catholics we will be able to help in this battle if, first of all, we understand well what we are defending. It is a good opportunity to go back to that fundamental Church document which was very controversial during the Second Vatican Council, but which became essential to the defense of the dignity of the human person. It is the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.
There are three things that are very helpful to remember regarding religious freedom.
1. It is a fundamental right
“This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limit” (DH, 2).
Even in the case that “contraception” were a right –which it obviously is not–, it could not be above the right to religious freedom or to freedom of conscience since these rights are based on the very nature of the human person:
“The right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed” (DH, 2).
Contraception cannot be defended as a right, since it is not in conformity with the dignity of the human person.
2. Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience go together
The “logic” behind the HHS mandate is to try to defend contraception as a right for women, and therefore the mandate would be a step forward in helping women. When the Catholic Church and many others spoke out against the mandate, the Government tried to “fix it” by not imposing the mandate on Catholic institutions, but rather on their insurance providers, and considering that enough to say that it was not going against religious freedom. But this only shows that it has not understood that religious freedom and freedom of conscience go together:
“Man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience, especially in matters religious” (DH, 3)
3. Government has the duty to protect this right
“The protection and promotion of the inviolable rights of man rank among the essential duties of government. Therefore, government is to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens, in an effective manner, by just laws and by other appropriate means.
Government is also to help create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life, in order that the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfill their religious duties, and also in order that society itself may profit by the moral qualities of justice and peace which have their origin in men’s faithfulness to God and to His holy will” (DH, 6).
If it is our duty as Catholics to live according to our beliefs, it is our duty as American citizens to remind the Government that it must protect our rights, not impose one it wants to create.