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'Accommodation' approach not acceptable for conscience rights and religious liberty

Late last week, the president announced there will be some changes in the previously articulated federal rule requiring most private health plans to include coverage for contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can induce abortions. The details of these so-called changes are largely unknown, if indeed there are details.

The president has called this new step an "accommodation." It is essential that we repeat we will not put up with a mere accommodation of the rights of conscience and religious liberty. Those rights must be recognized and fully respected, consistent with the best traditions of our nation.

At first glance, the president's most recent proposal still demonstrates a disregard for the conscientious beliefs of individuals and institutions in several important ways. The administration will still mandate all insurers must include coverage for the objectionable services in all policies they write. Self-insuring religious employers, the Archdiocese of Omaha for example, and religious insurance companies will not be exempt from this unjust mandate.

In addition, even though religious employers can "declare" they do not offer this coverage, the insurer must offer it anyway, free of charge. Since it is the religious employer that sets up the relationship between the employee and the insurance carrier, the religious apostolate still is being asked to encourage an employee to make use of something that is morally harmful. The cost of these objectionable services will certainly be passed on to the employer somehow, as part of the cost of doing business. So the injustice will be concealed by deception.

Experts in religious liberty will continue to evaluate the federal mandates in the coming days. They seem at first look to have changed very little. In the meantime, as we continue to insist that we will not simply be "accommodated," it is important for us to be clear about the nature of our Catholic faith and practice.

Government spokespersons and secular commentators portray the Catholic Church as one organization among many, another special interest group perhaps, vying for its advantage, guarding its self-interest. They often view our worship as quaint or our teachings as outdated. They can spot our unfaithfulness, and, from a political perspective, that seems to make the Church vulnerable. Most of the time, they get it wrong about the nature of the Church. It is up to us to get it right.

A LENTEN ACTIVITY

Might I suggest a special Lenten activity for the coming weeks? I invite you to read and reflect on the section of the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" titled "I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church" (Article 9, No. 748-975). This is a beautiful expression of the Church's self-understanding. It can deepen our own understanding of the importance of the rightful place of the Church in the world. I think reading the Catechism is enriching; you might consider it a penance. So whether you are looking for an enriching Lent, or a penitential one, this can work for you.

It will surprise many people to find out that the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" does not begin by discussing the "Catholic Church." It begins with God, with the mystery of the Trinity. As we profess in the creed, understanding the Church flows from our faith in the sovereignty of God, in the saving mission of Jesus Christ on earth and in heaven, and in the life and activity of the Holy Spirit. Our belief that the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic is inseparable from our belief in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Christ Himself has instituted the Church for the salvation of people in every time and place. Within the Church we enjoy a relationship with God and with others that is more fundamental - and more necessary for life - than being a citizen of a nation or a member of a party.

Because the Church has been established by God as the means for our forgiveness and salvation we are called to allow the Church to form us in Christ. We do not constitute the Church in the way that "We the people" constitute the nation. We are incorporated into the body of Christ, who already possesses His identity in integrity. Our membership in this mystical body is not inconsequential. As St. Paul reminds us, each member, in his or her own way, has an effect on the vitality or the malaise of the whole. Still, we do not belong to the Church to do God or anyone else a favor. We hope, in humility, to receive God's favor, life in Christ with our sins forgiven.

I am always sad when I hear someone describe his experience of the Church as some impersonal mechanism that lumbers through history bent on coercing people to do what they really do not want to do. This is not Jesus' design. As He established the Church, Jesus designated apostles as pastors and teachers, to preach the Gospel and to witness to its truth with their lives. Jesus remains with the Church, the head of His mystical body. He designates a vicar on earth, the pope, who has the personal charism of shepherding God's people to full life. In every age, the successors of the apostles, as pastors and teachers, continue to invite people, not simply to be part of an organization, or to behave in a certain way.

Instead we are invited to come to Christ, to respond to Him personally (not only privately) as He makes Himself known and present in the Church. All who come to Him are challenged to be His disciples, to take up the cross daily. He then asks us to witness to Him with our lives, with the help of the Holy Spirit. This witness is a great gift of hope to the whole world, an invitation to see ourselves as God sees us.

It is the personal nature of our teaching and our living out the teaching that makes our message of hope credible in the real world. It is crucial that we hold out hope in Christ at this moment with regard to the central importance of human dignity and God's plan for marriage and human sexuality. (I need to talk more about this another time.) We have a right to communicate this hope, without interference, not only in pulpits or pamphlets, but also in hospitals and universities, in schools and in apostolates that serve the poor.

In my opinion, the agenda reflected in the recent Health and Human Services mandates betrays a bleak view of humanity, at its root, self-serving and therefore hopeless. Perhaps that is the nature of politics these days, but I don't think it has to be. It certainly must not be the nature of the Church. Our neighbors are watching to see whether we have anything substantially different to offer from what they get from presidents or from MTV.

SHARING HOPE IN CHRIST

We must tell them of the hope that is ours in Christ. We must preach the Gospel free of charge, in the face of opposition. The sad fact we are not always faithful to it, as our critics are quick to point out, does not mean the Church is wrong. It means God is right in knowing that our most basic need today and everyday, is for salvation and not for affirmation.

I will be praying for you in a special way during the coming days of Lent. Please pray for me, too, that together we may take up the cross when it is offered and become more completely conformed to Jesus Christ.

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