By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – “I’m not Catholic, so this doesn’t apply to me.”
Some respond thus to the government’s mandate that employers pay for health insurance that covers contraception, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs.
The Health and Human Services Department mandate is part of the 2010 health care reform law, called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that this law is an acceptable exercise of Congress’ taxing powers.
But Catholics are not saying that paying for contraception is bad for Catholics; they’re saying it’s bad for society, according to Christopher Klofft, assistant professor of theology at Assumption College.
He cautioned against getting into arguments about this issue, urged charity if one does, and offered reasons for hope.
He spoke about “What it means to be Catholic and American” at the diocese’s closing of the Fortnight for Freedom Monday at St. Stephen’s Church. Bishop McManus and several priests celebrated Mass there, assisted by several deacons.
The June 21-July 4 Fortnight was a campaign supporting religious liberty, which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called for, partly in response to the HHS mandate that would force Catholic agencies to pay for procedures and drugs they oppose. Limits on Church service to immigrants is another concern.
In his homily Bishop McManus recalled Pope John Paul II warning about threats to religious liberty in the United States 20 years ago. Improper responses are recoiling in fear or reacting in anger, he said. Prayer is the ultimate source of strength; with God, all is possible.
St. Paul, the diocese’s patron, said everything works for good for those who love God and urged Christians to live according to what they’ve learned, the bishop said. He said Catholics have learned from their faith that everyone is made in God’s image, and civil authority has no ability to diminish their freedom.
Faith without works is dead, Bishop McManus said. Christians are called to serve, especially the most vulnerable – the unborn, the immigrant, the poor and unemployed – and will be judged on this.
He said Catholics have stood together to counter threats to their freedom, and this is not about one political party, but about the moral fabric of society. Risking one person’s freedom risks everyone’s freedom, he said. He said they want to be able to say America is a place where there is “liberty and justice for all.”
“All persons have a right to basic health care,” Professor Klofft said in his talk. But the issue here is freedom of conscience.
“What we stand up for is the Truth,” the way the world really is, he said.
He used ideas from “The Sources of Christian Ethics,” by Servais Pinckaers.
Some might say: “I am free to do whatever I want to do,” but that is “a freedom of indifference” that doesn’t care about others or oneself, Professor Klofft said. In contrast, Pinckaers writes about “the freedom for excellence.”
“You can either accept God’s will for your life, or you can not accept God’s will for your life,” Professor Klofft said. “Are we faithful to the call” to relationship with God? One’s choices in life should work toward answering the question: “What is it I am called to do to be a human being? … When we sin we choose not to live the way God has called us to live. It’s like sitting on a tree branch and sawing off the branch.”
Professor Klofft, using Pinckaers, spoke of forming a character that continues to make good decisions, likening this to learning to play a musical instrument.
At first, one might practice because one’s parents insist on it. Later, one might be encouraged to continue because of praise. Later, one might play for the beauty of the music. So too, people might do right to avoid punishment, reach a point where they are praised for being responsible, and later act as they do because “if I was to not do this, I would not be who I am.”
“In Catholic moral theology your conscience must be followed,” Professor Klofft said, referring to Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1776-1802. “Our conscience is the very life of the Spirit” indwelling in us.
How does one develop this?
“We make the conscious, willed decision to make good choices.”
“Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions,” the catechism says in section 1782. “He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.” Professor Klofft spoke of people saying, “The Church nowadays is so obsessed with authority.”
“Our shepherds are to help us be the best human beings we can be. Thank God I don’t have to figure all this out myself.”
“Can a Catholic disagree with Church teaching?” he asked.
“No!” responded a listener.
People choose to be American first and “fit our Catholic beliefs” into that, Professor Klofft said. But how can one be a good American without a relationship with God, which makes people good human beings, who are needed to form a good state. He said people must stand for truth, human rights and freedom for excellence.
He said he believes there is reason for confidence and spoke of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which may be used to challenge the mandate. People must have conversations about this, he said.
“This is not about winning arguments,” however, he said. “Don’t ever start a conversation over the internet and expect it to reach a fruitful” conclusion.
He suggested asking something like, “Why are you opposed to me having my conscience protected?” Catholics tend to go on the defensive, he said, and urged, “Control the conversation if you’re going to have the conversation.” He also offered Jesus’ advice: “Do not cast your pearls before swine.”
“Always remember to conduct yourselves with charity,” Professor Klofft urged, saying people will win more hearts with love than with “intellectual bullying.” Listeners applauded.
“God has already won; it was won on the cross,” he said, and urged listeners to show others the reason for their hope.
“I like his reasonable thinking,” John Martin, of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Westborough, said of Professor Klofft.
“Chris’ advice was just so good,” said Herman Millet, also from St. Luke’s. “Rather than be confrontational, we should just ask a question.”
“I thought the presentation was very good,” said Frances E. Pike, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for the Worcester Diocese. “We really have to get people out to pray and stand up for what we believe in. The reason we … take care of the poor is because of our Catholic faith. And we pray every day. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a spiritual ministry. I think that each one of us has a personal responsibility to see their friends and neighbors are getting the care they need.”
Speaking about the Supreme Court decision, Rose Thoman said: “I was heart-broken; I cried; I could relate it to Roe v. Wade. I’ve worked in the pro-life movement for 40 years.” A member of St. John, the Guardian of Our Lady Parish in Clinton, she worships at St. Benedict Abbey in Still River.
The decision will degrade society as “abortion destroyed morality among our young,” and the mandate could lead to killing the elderly, she said.
What solution does she see?
“That’s what I’m worried about,” she said. “I don’t see it happening under this administration. Our only hope is to replace our president with someone who will overturn the Supreme Court decision. That’s what Romney promised.”
Speaking of President Barack Obama, running for re-election against Mitt Romney, she said, “He’s holding the life of every person in his hands through this Obamacare,” and people don’t recognize its power.
Editor’s Note: Bishop McManus’ homily from this Mass can be heard and seen on the homepage of the diocesan website, www.worcesterdiocese.org.