What the Catholic Church Demands of Those in Power

Dr. Kimberly Shankman recently spoke in New York and Washingtonon religious liberty (click on each city for video and picturest by the Crossroads Cultural Center). The Cardinal Newman Society covered her appearances in its article “Benedictine College Dean Digs to the Root of Religious Liberty.”

By Dr. Kimberly Shankman, Dean of Benedictine College

Speech delivered in New York and Washington, March 28 and 29

Before I begin the substance of my remarks, I’d like to say a few words about what I’m doing here.  I’m not a theologian, not an historian, not a legal scholar.  I am a part-time political scientist, but I don’t have any particular academic expertise in religion and politics.  However, I am a dean of a small Catholic college that I believe does great good in the world by trying to live its call authentically.  We believe that we cannot, in good conscience, obey the HHS mandate.  Therefore, I guess I am in the position of a representative of the Catholic Church making a demand on those in power; asking to be excused from complying with this mandate.

Now, everyone who has studied the history of Western Europe knows that he question of what the Catholic Church demands of those in power is one that has been basically inescapable.  The unforgettable image of Emperor Henry IV, standing barefoot in the snow at Canossa for three days waiting for the Pope’s pardon over his actions in appointing bishops, shows that the answer to that question is “a lot.”

However, there are equally unforgettable images that give another dimension to this story.  There is Thomas a Becket, that “meddlesome priest” who would not agree to the King’s assumption of secular power over the clergy, lying with his head bashed in, his life’s blood seeping into the stones of the floor of Canterbury Cathedral.  There is Thomas More, “the King’s good servant, but God’s first” being led to the executioner’s block on tower hill because he would not give his concurrence to the King’s assumption of ecclesial power.  These images suggest that the church demands as much, or even more, of the Catholics doing the demanding as it asks of those wielding the power.

Now of course we all know that it was in many respects this very entanglement between secular and spiritual authority that ultimately paved the way for our current recognition of the fundamental importance of religious liberty.  To vastly oversimplify, the state, which had taken upon itself the right (and in fact, considered it a responsibility) to expunge heresy for the sake of social peace and good order, began killing people for unorthodoxy in their beliefs.  Next, with the Protestant reformation, people suddenly found that as their rulers chose whether to become Protestant, remain Catholic, or, even more disconcertingly, become Protestant and then revert to Catholicism, what had been perfectly acceptable and orthodox in belief yesterday was now considered dangerously subversive and subject to persecution.  Then, deciding not to let the bloody persecution over religious differences remain at the level of the state (after all, why should the king have all the fun), they began to kill each other over their religious differences.  Religious disagreement provoked bloody and distressing war and civil war.

America was founded by refugees from this situation.  Of course, they came to America not in pursuit of some general, generalizable form of religious liberty, but rather to find the liberty to pursue their own religion and to avoid contact with others who did not share their beliefs.  Over time, however, a general commitment to the idea of religious freedom developed in the American context.  This commitment had two very different foundations.

The first is a kind of quid pro quo justification for religious liberty, basically understood as freedom to worship.  I want to practice my religion without being bothered, so I will let you practice yours without bothering you.  The basic pact is that no religion will try and gain political favor for its particular practices, and in return society at large will, to the extent practicable, leave each religion free to determine its own internal practices without interference.  By and large, our legal system is very supportive of this understanding of religious freedom.  Our courts support a wide range of religious practices that many citizens find repulsive—like animal sacrifice—or that in fact burden and inconvenience the state—like religiously motivated exemptions from the requirement to have a photograph for a driver’s license.  These are expressions of the idea that freedom to worship, even in bizarre or incomprehensible ways, is the essence of religious liberty.

It’s important to note the kind of freedom that is being protected in this way.  This type of religious liberty applies primarily to those aspects of faith that are internal to the faith community, and generally neither touch nor apply to anyone outside the community.  They essentially are rules that affect only those who choose to abide by them, and the adherents of the religions in question generally understand them this way. A few years ago as we were preparing for a family game of Monopoly, I happened to notice that the rules had a “frequently asked questions” list; one of the questions was “can we play with special ‘house rules’” if we want to?”  You’ll be relieved to know that the answer is yes, you can.  I really wondered about what the alternative answer could be—no, under no circumstances can you play by house rules.  If anyone attempts to collect a bonus for landing on free parking, agents of Parker Brothers will storm your house and confiscate Boardwalk and Park Place?  The religious freedom protected under the quid pro quo justification for religious liberty is much like the protection of the ability to establish house rules in Monopoly.

The Catholic church, of course, like any other religion, has many of these “house rules.”  In other words, there are some Church teachings which, while true and significant, are in some way essentially arbitrarily true beliefs—that the Sabbath is on Sunday, that Friday is the day of penance, etc.   These things are analogous to my belief that Chicago is the greatest city in the world–true, but only apparent to me because I happen to have been lucky enough to have been born and raised there.

One feature of these teachings is that all parties, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, understand that these are relevant only to Catholics and not binding on non-Catholics.  So, for example, Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays in Lent.  While there are good and significant reasons for this, Catholics don’t believe that this is a question of natural law.  If the government were to mandate that all Catholic institutions had to provide their non-Catholic employees the option of a meat dish on Fridays in Lent in their cafeteria, it wouldn’t violate our conscience to do it.  Even at the personal level—if a non-Catholic friend was having lunch at my house on a Friday in Lent and asked for a bologna sandwich, I would have no hesitation in fixing it for her, because after all, she isn’t Catholic.

If all that religious liberty were supposed to protect are these “house rules”, it is fair to say, the Church’s opposition to the HHS mandate looks pretty thin, if not outright incomprehensible.  Since no Catholic is being prevented from doing anything the Church teaches, nor being forced to do anything the Church proscribes, the violation of religious liberty is not readily apparent to those who understand religious liberty primarily as the ability to set the “house rules” for religious practice.  If providing contraception is like providing a bologna sandwich in Lent, the answer “don’t use it if you don’t believe in it” is good and sufficient.

However, there is a second foundation for religious liberty, which is based in an understanding of the centrality of religious freedom for the full development and flourishing of the human person.  In the American political tradition, this was the foundation built on by James Madison in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.   In laying out the case against a single state religion supported by all taxpayers,  he said:  “Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.”  That is, this justification  sees man’s inherent, and trans-political,  relation to God, rather than social peace, as the basis for protecting the right to religious liberty.  Religious liberty is a good because it is central to the flourishing of the human person.  This understanding of religious liberty takes into account a person’s right to hold beliefs but also the right to express those beliefs, because it flows from and understanding of the social dimension of human nature.  Now this transcendent view of human nature, and of religion as a response to that nature, is a feature of many, if not all, the great world religions.  I am limiting my remarks to the Christian understanding of this relationship primarily because that is the view I am familiar with, not because I believe that Christians are unique in having this view.

Pope Benedict describes this understanding:

“The right to religious freedom is rooted in the very dignity of the human person, whose transcendent nature must not be ignored or overlooked. God created man and woman in his own image and likeness For this reason each person is endowed with the sacred right to a full life, also from a spiritual standpoint. Without the acknowledgement of his spiritual being, without openness to the transcendent, the human person withdraws within himself, fails to find answers to the heart’s deepest questions about life’s meaning, fails to appropriate lasting ethical values and principles, and fails even to experience authentic freedom and to build a just society.”

As this quotation from the Pope makes clear, this understanding of religious liberty is rooted in an understanding of the essential relatedness of man.  Man’s nature is formed through his relation to God, and his nature is both individual and intrinsically social.  This understanding of religious freedom anchors it in man’s dual nature—citizen of both a heavenly and an earthly city.

It is this understanding that the Church is relying upon in her opposition to the HHS mandate.  This understanding addresses those aspects of the Church’s teachings that are not  “house rules,” but rather are the working out of the understanding of the nature of reality and man’s place within it that which flow from the basic fact of Christianity. This understanding of religious liberty would protect the right of the church to propound, and to follow, those of her teachings that are that are both true and necessary.   They are accessible to all through reason, although Christians find further support through revelation.

I can’t stress enough that the Church does not see herself primarily as the purveyor of a set of ethical and behavioral norms–a kind of “how to” kit for achieving holiness and salvation. Christianity is not about rules for morality.  Christianity is about the nature of reality and an encounter with the living God.  All the ethical and behavioral norms, rules, and expectations are just the working out of these two fundamental aspects of the church, in particular of an understanding the true nature of the human person.

As Pope Benedict put it in his book In the Beginning:

“What is the human being? This question is posed to every generation and to each individual human being, for in contrast to the animals our life is not simply laid out for us in advance. What it means for us to be human beings is for each one of us a task and an appeal to our freedom. We must each search into our human-being-ness afresh and decide who or what we want to be as humans. In our own lives each one of us must answer, whether he or she wants to or not, the question about being human.”

Human reason, however, by its nature pushes us to ask questions until, eventually we run out of answers.  Ultimately, every person who fully engages his or her reason will end up against an impenetrable mystery. This awakens what Msgr. Luigi Giussani has called “the religious sense”—an understanding that human reason itself, when fully engaged, points beyond itself  for answers to the deepest questions that reason provokes.  As Pope Benedict XVI explained, in his message for the celebration of the world day of peace in January 2011, “our nature appears as openness to the Mystery, a capacity to ask deep questions about ourselves and the origin of the universe”

Christianity finds people at the moment of surrender to the inevitability of mystery.  A true, mature Christianity is born of an encounter with Christ that responds to our confrontation with the limits of our reason.  It is through the commitment of our freedom, our fully rational freedom, to accept Christ’s invitation to “come and see” what the journey he proposes entails, that the individual accepts the identity “Christian.”  Christianity thus is rooted in the fundamental attributes of human reason and human freedom.   Pope Benedict again:

“In him, in Jesus Christ, we can discern what the human being, God’s project, is, and thereby also our own status… The question about what the human being is finds its response in the following of Jesus Christ. Following in his steps from day to day in patient love and suffering we can learn with him what it means to be a human being and to become a human being.”

It is important to realize that this conception of Christianity is at once both individual and social.  That is, man comes to recognize Christ as the answer to his own deepest questions, but that very recognition points him to the recognition that he shares these questions with all his fellow humans, and so must respect their dignity and freedom.  Once again, Pope Benedict describes this most clearly when he says:  “Openness to truth and perfect goodness, openness to God, is rooted in human nature; it confers full dignity on each individual and is the guarantee of full mutual respect between persons. Religious freedom should be understood, then, not merely as immunity from coercion, but even more fundamentally as an ability to order one’s own choices in accordance with truth.”

And, according to the pope, freedom and respect are inseparable; indeed,  as he states “in exercising their rights, individuals and social groups are bound by the moral law to have regard for the rights of others, their own duties to others and the common good of all”.

Obviously, these basic truths about the human person which the Church bases its teaching on are of an entirely different character than the “house rules” described earlier.  If my friend, eating her bologna sandwich (which, remember, I happily made for her without the slightest twinge of conscience) on my couch one Friday in Lent said to me “have you heard the latest gossip about our boss and his drinking problem” I wouldn’t just say “oh, she’s not Catholic so it’s ok for her to gossip, I’ll just sit and listen”; I would be called on to at the very minimum not participate myself in the gossip fest, and, if the situation allowed for it, to try and persuade her to stop doing it herself.  I certainly would not be behaving reasonably if I said “well, I don’t gossip, and I think gossip is wrong, but since you do gossip and it’s ok for you, then if you want a few more juicy tid-bits you can go to Bill Smith, who has some items for you.”  If the same friend told me she was having an affair and wanted to borrow my apartment for a trysting place, I certainly would not be able to lend it to her, nor would I be consistent if I said I personally wouldn’t lend her my apartment but I’d give her the names of people who would.

If I were to do those things, not only would I be violating the norms I should be upholding—respect for the dignity of another and the sanctity of marriage—but also, and probably more seriously in the long run, I would be destroying my own ability to serve as a witness to the importance of treating others with respect and honesty.  If sometime later I tried to persuade my friend that gossip was harmful or that liaisons with married men were wrong, she would be unlikely to take my warnings too seriously, since evidently I didn’t take it that seriously.  Anyone who became aware of my willingness to facilitate further gossip or an illicit tryst would be justified in believing that I didn’t really, truly think the violation was that serious (after all, I would never act that way regarding something I unequivocally thought was wrong; I’d never tell someone where to get a gun to commit a murder or find them a driver for the  getaway car for a bank robbery).

This is the issue that the Church, and those institutions which are committed to the teachings of the Church, face with the HHS mandate.  The Church’s objection to HHS mandate is not primarily about concern to maintain sexual morality; that’s an issue of catechesis.   It’s about her right to articulate a vision of the nature of humanity, love, and the nature and purposes of human sexuality.  It is also about the right not to be a hypocrite; not to have to say “do as I say, not as I do.”

This, then, is what the Church is demanding of those in power.  Once again, Pope Benedict states it with absolute clarity:

“The same determination that condemns every form of fanaticism and religious fundamentalism must also oppose every form of hostility to religion that would restrict the public role of believers in civil and political life.

It should be clear that religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike in that both represent extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the principle of secularity. Both absolutize a reductive and partial vision of the human person, favouring in the one case forms of religious integralism and, in the other, of rationalism. A society that would violently impose or, on the contrary, reject religion is not only unjust to individuals and to God, but also to itself. God beckons humanity with a loving plan that, while engaging the whole person in his or her natural and spiritual dimensions, calls for a free and responsible answer which engages the whole heart and being, individual and communitarian. Society too, as an expression of the person and of all his or her constitutive dimensions, must live and organize itself in a way that favours openness to transcendence. Precisely for this reason, the laws and institutions of a society cannot be shaped in such a way as to ignore the religious dimension of its citizens or to prescind completely from it. Through the democratic activity of citizens conscious of their lofty calling, those laws and institutions must adequately reflect the authentic nature of the person and support its religious dimension. Since the latter is not a creation of the state, it cannot be manipulated by the state, but must rather be acknowledged and respected by it.”

The Church is demanding that she be allowed to present her case that man is more than the sum of his impulses, and that freedom is more than the ability to respond to passing whims. Catholic institutions subject to the mandate are on the front lines. These institutions—colleges, hospitals, schools, charities, service organizations—are the way in which the Church both pursues her mission to serve those in need and presents her message to the broader culture.  And these are the very institutions that must formulate a response to the HHS mandate.  The leaders of these institutions are the ones who must carry the Church’s demands to the powerful.

And she has chosen an unlikely and, truth be told, largely unprepared group of messengers.  For instance, college administrators are not, as a group, generally known for their outstanding boldness; speaking for myself, I would say that stereotype is extremely accurate.  So, I’m not trying to compare myself or my colleagues in these positions to the great saints and martyrs whom I referenced at the beginning of the talk.  Honestly, I don’t expect HHS Secretary Sebelius to ask “will nobody rid me of this meddlesome Dean?”  and I am sure the fact that I disapprove of this mandate is totally unknown to President Obama, and even if he somehow became aware of the fact it wouldn’t trouble him in the least.  So I predict my head will remain firmly attached to my neck regardless of the stubbornness of my opposition to his plans.  In fact, it makes me feel kind of ridiculously self-dramatizing to even bring up this kind of comparison.  However, the historian Christopher Dawson long ago made this observation:

“the challenge of secularism must be met on the cultural level, if it is to be met at all; and if Christians cannot assert their right to exist in the sphere of higher education, they will eventually be pushed not only out of modern culture but out of physical existence”

We, for example, are a college supported by an order that takes a vow of poverty. The fines proposed for non-compliance with the mandate will eat up our resources very, very quickly. For the moment, due to a technicality in the law, the mandate does not apply to our insurance plan.  However, that is likely to change in the near future.  At that point, we will face a choice—either to comply with the mandate, and in so doing destroy our ability to effectively witness for the Church’s understanding of the human person, the nature of love, openness to life, and the meaning of marriage; or to defy the mandate, and preside over the relatively rapid depletion of our resources to the point that we will no longer be able to operate.  In this situation, the Pope’s characterization of our time as marked by the “tyranny of relativism” has a new urgency for my colleagues and me.

So yes, the Catholic Church demands a lot of those in power.  She demands that she be allowed to articulate a vision of the human person that gives the lie to the reduced vision—of man, of reason, of sexuality—that ultimately supports the structures of power that they benefit from.  But this great country long ago accepted that the right of citizens to seek, find, and proclaim the truth, individually and collectively was ultimately the foundation of a just and humane politics.  I can only trust that this great insight will not be forgotten, at least not in pursuit of something as essentially pathetic and trivial as free birth control.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.