Our many fellow Catholics now enchained for the Faith of our Fathers in such places as China, Syria, and Egypt are, as Father Faber’s hymn says, “in heart and conscience free.” But what happens when a government tries to chain the conscience itself?
A few weeks ago, in a remarkably unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the attempt of the present Administration in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC to restrict religious freedom by interfering with the hiring of ministerial personnel. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the Administration’s argument that the First Amendment does not guarantee the right of religious organization to choose its leaders, was an “extreme” infringement of the free exercise clause.
Undeterred, and menacingly on the cusp of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Department of Health and Human Services has issued an “interim final rule” which requires all private health plans, including those of Catholic hospitals and schools, to include coverage of prescription contraceptives, female sterilization procedures, and abortion counseling.
For a while, various Catholic leaders had hoped that they might reach an understanding with the Administration, and some even felt more at peace with the president’s assurances. But “peace for our time” only lasts until Poland is invaded. Cardinal Mahony, whom no one would fault for intransigence, now says, “I cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on the freedom of conscience than this ruling today. This decision must be fought against with all the energies the Catholic Community can muster.” Cardinal-elect Dolan said, “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.”
When a writer for The National Catholic Reporter supports the Catholic Church against the Obama administration, one wonders if it might be the effect of solar radiation, but it has happened now. And The Washington Post joined the ranks with an editorial saying that “requiring a religiously affiliated employer to spend its own money in a way that violates its religious principles does not make an adequate accommodation for those deeply held views.” We have already seen the removal of hospitals from their Catholic associations. The bishops seem united against government policy in their defense of principles as never before. In St. Petersburg, Bishop Robert Lynch, not a man of conservative temperature, speculated about the possibility of “civil disobedience” and Father John Jenkins of Notre Dame University, who gave an honorary degree to President Obama, has suddenly been awakened to the consequences of naiveté: as William McGurn pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, penalties mandated by the government’s Health and Human Services for non-compliance, would cost Note Dame $10 million annually.
It would never had occurred to Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina to honor Mr. Obama, and a suit which it has filed in the District Court in Washington,D.C. over compulsory coverage of prescription contraceptives, could well be invoked to block the Health and Human Service’s aggression. Its president, William Thierfelder, has made clear that he would sooner close the college than submit to a violation of the First Amendment. Of course, a question for the bishops as they take their place on solid rock, is how will they deal canonically with Catholic public officials who cooperate with evil, which is something worse than twisting the U.S. Constitution. Vice President Biden said once with his customarily infelicitous use of English that he would “shove my rosary beads” down the throat of anyone who suggested that the Obama administration was hostile to the Church. Mrs. Pelosi more recently complained that the Catholic bishops have “this conscience thing,” and the secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, boasts of her Catholicity while threatening the Church with civil penalties.
At the time of the last presidential election, some may have thought that I overstated things in finding parallels with the dystopian world described in Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World in 1907, in which Julian Felsenburgh makes eugenics “a sacred duty.” Felsenburgh was a previously unknown man from the American Midwest who suddenly appears with enormous financial backing to promote a One World government, something like the European Union metastasized. In spite of no record of any sort of accomplishment, he cuts a swath through the populations of nations with a cold condescension, reading carefully crafted speeches that cause people to sob and faint. He promotes himself as an arbiter of cultures, with himself as a universal president. He proposes pacifism, pantheism and the eradication of poverty by distribution of wealth. His chief obstacle is Christianity. He employs the useful idiocy of treasonable clerics: those utopian idealists who had grown impatient with the religion they were ordained to serve.
Since our Lord did not humiliate the frightened apostles by saying “I told you so” when he rose from the dead, I shall not say “I told you so” to any who, just three years ago, underestimated the plottings of social engineers whose audacity is only an audacity of hopelessness. But in 1992, long before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger cited The Lord of the World in a lecture at the Catholic University of Milan, and invoked Felsenburgh, as an apocalyptic prototype who should be a warning against the consequences of materialistic humanism. He said of Felsenburgh: “The anti-Christ is represented as the great carrier of peace in a similar new world order.” He told you so.
So did another giant of intellectual history, the Blessed John Henry Newman. In Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects, Newman cited the prediction of an eighteenth-century Anglican bishop and scientist, Samuel Horsley of St. Asaph:
The Church of God on earth will be greatly reduced, as we may well imagine, in its apparent numbers, in the times of Antichrist, by the open desertion of the powers of the world. This desertion will begin in a professed indifference to any particular form of Christianity, under the pretense of universal toleration; which toleration will proceed from no true spirit of charity and forbearance, but from a design to undermine Christianity, by multiplying and encouraging sectaries… For governments will pretend an indifference to all, and will give a protection in preference to none.