Homily for February 5, 2012: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

[Click here for the readings.]

Sixty years ago, in the spring of 1952, Congress was in the middle of a long and controversial investigation into Communists in Hollywood.  The House Un-American Activities Committee was summoning writers, directors, and actors to Washington to get them to “name names” of people they knew with ties to the Communist party.  One of those they subpoenaed was the playwright Lillian Hellman.

Hellman declined to do what the committee asked, writing to the chairman words that became instantly famous.  She wrote:  “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

Over the course of her life, there’s a lot that Lillian Hellman got wrong.  But on this issue, she was right.

Now, 60 years later, her words are as relevant as ever.  For once again, conscience is in the news.  The American conscience, and explicitly the Catholic conscience, is being challenged.  Worse than that, it is being dismissed.

Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that all but a few employers will be required by law to provide health coverage that includes, free of charge, all forms of contraception.  This includes the morning-after abortion pill and sterilization services.

There are no exemptions for Catholic hospitals, colleges, schools or charities.

It is impossible to overstate the seriousness of this.

In a statement released last week, Bishop DiMarzio didn’t mince words.  He put it bluntly: “We should be outraged.”

Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan said: “Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.”

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles called it “probably the most expansive decision on the part of the US Federal government ever,” and added “I cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience than this ruling.”

The toughest and angriest reaction came from Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik.  In his weekly newspaper column he wrote – and I quote – ““It comes like a slap in the face.  The administration has just told the Catholics of the United States, ‘To Hell with you!’ There is no other way to put it.”

Other religious groups have been afforded exemptions in similar circumstances.  Quakers, the Amish and Christian Scientists, among others have had their religious principles respected when it comes to health care.   But as Cardinal-designate Dolan explained:  “By its decision, the Obama administration has failed to show the same respect for the consciences of Catholics and others who object to treating pregnancy as a disease.”

Let me put this another way: what this means is that the Catholic Church will, by law, be required to cooperate with practices that for centuries it has held to be gravely immoral.

The USCCB and bishops around the country are encouraging Catholics to write to their representatives, to sign petitions, to make their objections known.

I’d like to add to all that something else — a response that, amid all the anger and alarm, I think has gotten far too little attention.  Bishop DiMarzio mentioned it in his statement, and it is central to this Sunday’s gospel.  It is available to every one of us.  And it may well be the most powerful action any of us can take.

In Mark’s gospel, when Jesus was overwhelmed by the demands of the world – people seeking healing, hoping for miracles – he got up before dawn and went away by himself.   And he prayed.  There, in conversation with his Father, he was renewed.  He was revived.  He was given strength to do what he had to do – to take his gospel to other villages, out into the wider world.

That is our calling, as well.  But we cannot do it without God’s help.

In the weeks and months to come, we need, more than ever, that same sense of spiritual renewal, and that same sense of purpose.

And: we need to pray.

To pray for wisdom in our leaders.  To pray for guidance.  To pray for strength.

We need to pray for our country.   Especially now.

So, add this intention to your prayers.  Pray that this ruling will be reversed.  Pray that our elected leaders will respect the Catholic conscience, and our Catholic beliefs.  Devote a decade of the rosary to this.  Offer a fast.  Give up something for Lent for this intention.  Take this in your heart to God and pray that our freedoms will be preserved and protected.

This goes far beyond whether or not someone agrees with the Church’s teachings about birth control and abortion.  But this is, in a fundamental way, a life issue.  This is about respecting the most personal and private aspect of human life: the conscience.  This is about protecting it.  Honoring it.  Defending it.

A great saint to remember is St. Thomas More, who gave his life for his conscience.  When Pope John Paul declared him the patron of statesmen and people in public life, he wrote: “The defense of the Church’s freedom from unwarranted interference by the State is at the same time a defense, in the name of the primacy of conscience, of the individual’s freedom vis-à-vis political power. Here we find the basic principle of every civil order consonant with human nature.”

My friends, this is so central to our human nature.  It is about our fundamental rights as human beings, as Catholics and, yes, as Americans.

It is about who we are.  What we cherish.  What we believe.

In 1952, Lillian Hellman said: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

Sixty years later, neither can we.


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  1. deacon marv robertson says:

    Brother Greg

    Excellent homily! You were spot-on in posing St. Thomas More (patron of politicians, judges and lawyers) as a model for the defense of conscience and religious freedom. We recall that nearly all the English hierarchy (save St. John Fisher) caved and signed the Oath of Succession and Oath of Supremacy, recognizing Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church in England. We might rhetorically ask if the president and his administration took inspiration (if that is the proper word) from Henry and parliament to suppress the Church. Let us pray that our bishops follow the exampe of St. John Fisher and refuse to compromise our religious and moral beliefs.

  2. Although no one has said it (but I bet many are thinking it), we should seriously be prepared for civil disobedience, if things do not change.

  3. Elizabeth Scalia says:

    A couple of Bishops and Michael Sean Winters and others — some right here on Patheos — HAVE said civil disobedience is in our future.

  4. I did not see their postings, writings, talks. So, let me stand correct.

  5. “corrected.”

  6. Deacon Greg, thanks for this great post. We’ve been talking it up about the HHS mandate at Ethika Politika lately, as well—including today’s piece on the incongruity of contraception and abortion. Your readers might care to take a look: http://www.cfmpl.org/blog/2012/02/03/pro-life-pro-contraception/

    Thanks for all you do!

  7. Oregon Catholic says:

    “This goes far beyond whether or not someone agrees with the Church’s teachings about birth control and abortion. But this is, in a fundamental way, a life issue. This is about respecting the most personal and private aspect of human life: the conscience. This is about protecting it. Honoring it. Defending it.”

    Ironically, our own RCC does not allow us the freedom of conscience on the issue of contraception.

  8. Why not just sell all these hospitals? We Christians do not need to own hospitals to do our duty of caring for the sick. What might have been a great apostolate a century ago is just a business today so unload it all and lets stick to the basics.

  9. AMEN, Deacon Greg!!

  10. The church states the teaching, you have the freedom to follow it or not. Is the church forcing you to not use contraceptiion?

  11. Oregon Catholic says:

    I don’t use contraception but I know that the Church teaches that it’s use is always a sin. That’s not allowing for freedom of conscience.
    I was just pointing out the irony in Deacon Greg’s homily, not arguing the teaching.

  12. Amen!

  13. True! But, what about all those who make their living by working in those hospitals, etc?

  14. Fiergenholt says:

    “. . .have heard little-to-nothing about the story. . .”

    I think the Anchoress is wrong here but it may be the geographical limitations of her own life.

    –Every major new agency covered this story in some way or another.

    –Planned Parenthood created and placed on the airways in many sections of the country a television commercial asking voters to write both HHS Secretary Sebellius and President Obama THANKING THEM for their stance.

    –A number of evangelical/fundamentalist congregations — probably understanding better than most the “Slippery Slope Theory” at work here — are attacking the administration’s ruling based upon the same “Violation of Individual Conscience” perspective that a lot of wise Catholic bishops are using.

    –I have also heard about a broad base of Constitutional Lawyers — many of them non-Catholic — who are already working on a challenge to the Supreme Court based also upon the First Amendment.

  15. As I understand it civil disobedience would be almost required by Moral Theology as laws that mandate things against “natural law” are “not laws at all” so can/should be ignored.

  16. Well if the state says that not insuring contraception is “morally wrong” and will limit themselves to strongly-worded-letters I think I’d be okay with that.

  17. What about the Universities though? Schools, to me, seem to be a pretty obvious element of a religious community. What if the state said Mennonite Universities had to have ROTC, or some other military program, on campus? Should they sell in that case?

  18. With that way of thinking then anyone can say anything is morally right as long as their conscience says it is.

  19. Oregon Catholic says:

    Yes and no. Not every moral issue is black and white for every person. This is one of the things that I struggle with between the RCC and the Eastern Churches. The RCC tries to define things to fit everyone and most moral questions are not as absolute as abortion for instance. The Eastern tradition, both Catholic and Orthodox has more respect for individual conscience. Probably because they put more emphasis on personal spiritual direction where a priest knows the individual and their motivations/ intent intimately and knows the formation of their conscience.

    IMO, because the RCC doesn’t have that expectation for everyone, it has to define everything very narrowly so as to keep the most people on the right path. I think it ultimately creates resentment in some people though and lacks a good means to resolve it since most people don’t have such a close relationship with a confessor/advisor. 5 minutes once a month in confession isn’t enough even if people were to go that often.

  20. deacon john m. bresnahan says:

    There is no birth control or any other issue at stake here legally other than the the power of the government to coerce and how far that coercion can go. The question is how much tyrrany the American people can be seduced into swallowing
    You can be sure the liberal media and the Administration will be fighting strongly to throw all sorts of “red herrings” into the debate to avoid having to discuss the most important constitutional issues.

  21. I’m hoping we Catholics don’t get too many sermons on this this weekend. I didn’t find liberal homilies on the cause-of-the-week very edifying in the 80′s. I find them less so today. Stick to the Scriptures: that’s our best bet.

    Besides, most every Catholic is on board with this, anyway. So what’s the point: rally the base and inflame our passions, or suggest we’re all in need of healing and conversion?

  22. I hope every priest in every parish in every homily in the US echoes these words.

  23. Rhinestone Suderman says:

    Oregonian Catholic, all the church can do, if you practice birth control, is tell you it thinks it’s a sin. It can’t force you to stop using it. It can’t forcibly take your birth control away from you. It can’t arrest you for using birth control.

    The government, on the other hand, can force you to do a lot of things, if you go against it.

    (And, by the way—if the Catholic church’s lack of what you call freedom of conscience bothers you so, why don’t you just leave? No one is forcing you to stay. You could joint any number of churches that allow birth control, though, you should be warned that most churches do have a certain set of beliefs they expect to you follow—okay, maybe not the Unitarians; becoming a member of any religious body is not like going to a restaurant; “Okay, I’ll have the Jesus lite, with a side of reincarnation, hold the sin and judgment!”)

  24. Rhinestone Suderman says:

    Oh, and Oregon Catholic? You do realize that the Orthodox Church is against abortion, too? And that they, too, will be affected, if the government tries to force abortion coverate on all religious organizations. (As well as Orthodox Jews, and many Evangelical Christian denominations.)

    (And, yes, I realize that the 5-minute confession isn’t satisfactory for many Catholics—but, on the other hand, have they worked to change that situation? Tried to find themselves a real, spiritual father they can talk to honestly? Lobbied for longer, and more frequent confessions? Or do they prefer to just stew in their own “resentment”—in which case, the fault is theirs as much as that of the Catholic Church. And, again, if they do feel such resentment, why do they not try another denomination?)

  25. Sign-me up.

  26. We are being asked to pray, to make sacrifice, offerings, etc on our own time. That is fine. However, as a Church body, bishops, priests and deacons should witness by example, in the Churches, leading their flocks in prayers. Bring back St. Michael The Archangel Prayer. At the prayers of the faithful, lead the faithful to pray an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be for God’s mercy and grace to penitrate the soul of this nation.

  27. Oregon Catholic says:

    WOW! You know nothing about me but you have me all figured out and presume to have the right to lecture me and tell me to get out of the RCC if I don’t like it.

  28. great site Mike R!

  29. Deacon Greg, I was with you till the end when you added Lillian Hellman. She was a strong supporter of socialism and of Stalin and his regime. Not a lot of religious freedom in the USSR or value of the individual conscience. Her conscience was about not testifying against communism here in the land of religious liberty. But she first came on my radar screen with her part in signing a support letter for legal abortion right before Roe as one of a 100 who had an abortion shoving it in everyones face.

    She is not someone I would hold up as a person to bring up in obvious admiration as a Catholic Deacon, but you might have more info on her than I do. I think there are a ton of others who you could have used who held firm against the Nazi’s or who hold firm against a state that makes legal abortion and the following holocaust we have seen of 54 million babies which this woman played a part.

    Sorry if this is harsh. I have been up for a number of days and going through some tough issues, but it just struck me as something I wanted to put out there for consideration. Again, with you 99% on your sermon and praise you for taking the time to make the point.

  30. Chris Sullivan says:

    Oregon Catholic,

    The Catholic church teaches that one is obliged to follow one’s conscience even if it happens to be badly formed. Vatican II taught that and the man who is now pope once wrote that it was so important to follow one’s conscience that everyone was obliged to do so, even against the Pope.

    Stick with your defense of individual conscience which is exactly what the Catholic Church teaches us although I would encourage you to study and reflect on what the Church teaches against contraception in marriage as there is great wisdom in it.

    God Bless

  31. Universities are a hotbed of dissent…even if it isn’t as obvious as it was in the past, it can be very insidious. The great learned have the ability to twist things to their own thinking and re-mold young, impressionable minds that do not yet have a well formed conscience. We really need to catechize in our parishes and reach out and stay in touch with all, especially the young and young adults. This is one of the reasons we’re in the shape that we’re in. When free love and sex, drugs, disobedience, contraception, abortion, etc hit our campuses, we didn’t know how to lovingly and thoughtfully counteract that. Now that the permanent diaconate and lay ministers have had true Catholic training and experience, the Church can more effectively be Christ’s leaven for the world in our day and age. We have to act as one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

  32. Chris, I would be very wary of looking to my own conscience for in the same document you are pulling a quote from the Father Ratzinger, there is the following:

    “The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.”

    I think many who support the party of death since they joined in the slaughter of 54 million babies fall into this trap as do all of us in regard to serious sin. It is easy to become sightless and only amazing grace can save us from that blindness. I would be very worried if I was in direct conflict with teacings the Catholic Church held as non negotiable. I find it interesting that often those lost supporting abortion are also lost on the side of the grave disorder of the homosexual act, both non negotiable issues. It is thus not surprising that we can see these same bling people arguing against the Bishops on religious liberty found so powerfully also in our own Constitution.

  33. Rhinestone Suderman says:

    Well, Oregon Catholic, you don’t know the rest of us, but you presume to lecture us on what the Catholic Church should, and shouldn’t be doing and, by implication, what your fellow Catholics should, or shouldn’t be doing.

    Myself, I left the Catholic Church for a number of reasons. It seems to me quite obvious that, if one finds oneself at odds with one particular church, one should, in all honesty, find another one which aligns more closely with the dictates of ones conscience. The Catholic Church’s position on love, life, marriage, the purpose of sex, contraception, abortion, etc., is pretty basic to its philosophy, and non-negotiable. You can plead “Freedom of conscience”—but on these iparticular ssues, the church has made its stance pretty clear, with no wiggle-room. Hence, it seems to me someone in your position has two options: you either realize that you are no longer in agreement with the church’s teachings on basic issues—that you are now a Protestant, or something else—and leave for a church more in line with the dictates of your conscience; or you try to convince your fellow Catholics that it’s the Church, not you, who are in the wrong—setting yourself up against not only your Catholic leaders and teachers, but your fellow Catholics who accept the church’s teachings on this matter, and don’t care to be directed by your conscience.

    Good luck with that.

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