A Sacred Right

The Supreme Court will soon issue its decision in response to Obamacare litigation. It’s anyone’s guess how this will turn out, and that’s a tragedy. A plain reading of the Constitution gives no authority to the federal government to administer a vast enforcement apparatus that profoundly affects everyone’s life and economic well being of the entire health-care industry.

Not only should the whole thing be struck down but the power that allowed its passage in the first place should also be struck down. Obamacare and its plethora of mandates really amount to a fundamental attack on human rights.

And it’s not only about the right to buy and sell, or decline to do so if we choose. The implications of the health-care regulatory trend even touch on issues of religious liberty. As Murray Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty shows, freedom to practice faith without government interference was a fundamental motivation for American independence.

At the Acton University this year, I listened to a fascinating lecture by Eric Metaxas, the evangelical author of Amazing Grace (about the end of slavery in Britain, made into a popular movie), a scriptwriter for VegieTales and also the author of the gigantic book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

He spoke about how religion can either be a tool of the total state or its most threatening foe lecture. In particular, he celebrated the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) for working against the Nazis, and even aiding a conspiracy to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was caught and killed.

The lecture was brilliant, incisive and tremendously thought provoking. What most startled me occurred during the question-and-answer session. Metaxas was finally asked the question that everyone was thinking.

Bonhoeffer chose resistance in the face of emergency conditions, but how do we know when such conditions arrive? Is there anything going on today that might qualify as trend that demands that people of faith resist the state through extreme measures?

Metaxas’ answer came without hesitation or qualification.

Metaxas cited the Obama administration’s HHS regulation that would force Catholic medical facilities to conduct procedures that are contrary to Catholic teaching. This is intolerable. He said that this whole debate isn’t really about abortion, euthanasia and contraception. It is about religious freedom and whether there is any sphere of life that is free from the state dictate.

This comment struck a nerve. The U.S. bishops of the Catholic Church have lately been uncharacteristically passionate in opposition to government interference. They have built websites, issued strongly worded statements, held rallies, pushed for public protests and warned very loudly and fervently against encroachment on religious freedom. I think this might be even unprecedented.

This is fantastic but what a contrast from years past!

The bishops have long supported all kinds of expansions of government into health care in the name of universal coverage. They’ve generally been friends of the welfare state and the entire interventionist economic program, never turning down government funds for their own hospitals and charities. They supported minimum wages, universal health care, drug benefits and the usual left-liberal domestic program on economics.

Here’s one bishop’s statement, picked at random from 2009: “All people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care that they can afford, and this should not depend on their stage of life, where or whether they or their parents work, how much they earn, where they live or where they come from.”

Now look at a bulletin insert published by the bishops in 2012: “For the first time in our history, the federal government will force religious institutions to fund and facilitate coverage of a drug or procedure contrary to their moral teaching… What is at stake is whether America will continue to have a free, creative and robust civil society — or whether the state alone will determine who gets to contribute to the common good, and how they get to do it.”

Why the switch in tone? I’m very happy for it, and perhaps Metaxas is right that this intervention really is an emergency. It appears that the bishops have supported government intervention of the most extreme sort, provided that it does not impinge on the freedom of the Catholic Church itself. But some people are now learning.

As the aphorism sometimes attributed to Thomas Jefferson says, government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have.

In addition, for nearly 20 years, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has been made subject to extremely harsh financial and legal penalties stemming from documented cases of clergy sex abuse. It has paid billions in settlement fees. Courts have forced the church to adopt extreme policies that have seriously interfered with normal ministerial functions.

Every volunteer today in Catholic institutions must submit to serious testing and jump through legal hoops to be authorized just to teach or provide some service. More and more people working within its structures are considered to be “mandatory reporters,” meaning that they have no choice but to act as agents of the police. It really has amounted to an unprecedented interference with the autonomy of the church, and this has spilled over to other denominations and sectors.

You could say that the bishops brought all this on themselves. The history of cover-ups and payoffs is chilling and ghastly. But you could also say that the government was looking for a good excuse to do to the Catholic Church what it has done to so many other sectors in society.

The church is not yet nationalized outright, but we are getting there. This isn’t quite as bad as the situation in France and Mexico during and after their revolutions, times when the priesthood itself was abolished and clerical garb forbidden, but sometimes the driving push smacks of the same motivation.

And as with the case of the health care intrusion, this isn’t only about Catholics. It’s about the rights of every sector of society to manage themselves. If the bureaucrats can force institutions to act in ways that violate fundamental beliefs, if the courts can jails church official not for what he did but for failing to anticipate and carry out the will of the police state, no one is really safe.

In time, we could all become supplicants and “mandatory reporters” not just at the airport (“if you see something, say something”), but in every aspect of life. Bonhoeffer might say that if we wait until this trend affects us personally, we’ll have waited too long to stop it.

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