Much ink has been spilled already on the HHS Mandate and the response of the US Bishops. However, there is an important theological aspect which I believe has not been given the attention it deserves.
For example, in MM’s recent post, he argues that “the principle here is supposed to be religious liberty, not an indirect funding of contraception by dealing with insurance companies” and asks why people are not making such a fuss over other instances of the state attacking religious liberty. In particular I would like to draw attention to what he said about distinction between state and federal encroachments on religious liberty:
“Why has nobody complained about similar mandates at the state level? American constitutionalists can come up with some cock-and-bull federal vs. state distinction, but that doesn’t address the underlying moral issue. Think of Romney attacking Obama when he did the same thing in Massachusetts!”
First, I should point out I agree with the point he wants to make (although I’d make it differently): there ought to be an outcry against all attacks on religious liberty. The Church (all of us) has often been too close to silent on the other issues which MM mentions, and he is of course right that the federal vs. state distinction “doesn’t address the underlying moral issue.” However, that distinction also points to another, in my opinion more fundamental, ecclesiological issue: the proper relation of church and state, specifically in the public square.
For St. Augustine and for nearly the entire Judeo-Christian tradition, the separation of church and state has been seen as a good thing. However, our understanding of the distinction has been warped in favor of the nation-state. William Cavanaugh explains it well:
“Liberalism is said to allow for a greater pluralism of ends: there are no longer two cities – the followers of Christ and the “world” – but one city with a diversity of individuals, each with the freedom to choose his or her own ends, whether to worship no god, one god, or twenty. But the longing for unity persists, along with the fear that diversity will produce conflict and tear the body politic apart. In the absence of a transcendent telos [i.e. the body of Christ], plurality is not simply a promise, but a threat, one that must be met by an even greater pull toward unity. But what could be the source of unity in a nation-state of diverse ends without a transcendent reference to participation in any single god? It can only be that the nation-state becomes an end in itself, a kind of transcendent reference needed to bind the many to each other” (Migrations of the Holy, 47).
Following the principles of the Enlightenment the nation-state sees itself as the source of unity. Any competing subsidiary sources of unity (most notably the communion of the Church and the communion of marriage) are unities which compete with the state to complicate public space. The nation-state needs complete allegiance to maintain unity. Thus it seeks to thrust the Church and marriage into the private sphere. It makes the claim that Church and state occupy two difference spaces, the public and the private, the sacred and the secular. It intends to strip the Church of its political implications. In doing so, the nation-state asserts itself as the catholica. The church ceases to have its own authority. She becomes merely one lobby among many beseeching the mighty nation-state to look upon her with favor.
In contrast, the Augustinian view sees the City of God and the city of man as dramatizations, enactments, of two plays on the same stage.
“In some Christian political imaginings, the one stage is the earthly city, the nation-state, on which the church is urged to play a supporting role. For Augustine, however, the stage is the world on which the one drama of salvation history is being enacted. The earthly city and the city of God are two intermingled performances, one a tragedy, the other a comedy. There are not two sets of props, no division of goods between spiritual and temporal, infinite and finite. Both cities are concerned with the same questions: What is the purpose of human life? How should human life be ordered to achieve that purpose? The difference is the city of God tells the story that we believe to be true, that God in Christ through the Spirit has saved us from the tragedy of inevitable violence…The church does not allow the earthly city to define one public space, but constantly redefines what is truly public. The church is not a separate institution enacting a wholly separate drama, but works with other actors to try to divert tragedy into the drama redemption.” (Migrations of the Holy, 64)
I may be reaching, but I think (hope) the bishops might just have their collective finger on the pulse of this problem. For example, in the letter of the ad-hoc committee to the rest of the bishops, the first point they list focuses not on conscience or contraception per se, but on the Obama administration’s insistence on defining what is religious and what isn’t:
“The Administration has indicated it is retaining the narrow, four-pronged exemption for “religious employers” such as churches and houses of worship. There is a serious concern that the four-pronged exemption would become a precedent for other regulations. However, it will also offer a new policy covering “non-exempt” religious organizations such as charities and hospitals. Our concern remains strong that the government is creating its own definitions of who is “religious enough” for full protection.”
Furthermore I think this may have been particularly on the bishops’ radar in part due to Pope Benedict’s words, recently referenced by Sofia Loves Wisdom, during his Ad Limina visit. (Note: contrary to the apparent perception of some of commenters on Sofia’s post, the pope’s comments were issued before the HHS mandate officially came out. He is not formally responding to it in his remarks to the bishops.) He said:
“The Church’s witness, then, is of its nature public: she seeks to convince by proposing rational arguments in the public square. The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.”
The public square does not merely belong to the nation-state, but is the cosmic stage on which the drama of salvation history is played out. The Church cannot allow this drama to be pushed off this public stage into some back room, which is precisely what limiting freedom of religion to freedom to worship intends to do: to strip the Church of her public witness.
Religious liberty in the US is a very important and worthy goal. Conscience rights for all are also important. But in order for the Church to fulfill her vocation, she must be willing and able to bear witness in the public square. If religious freedom is merely the freedom to “go to church” where you want, the Church is not free to be who she is. In preparation for this possibility, we, the Church, ought not only to be speaking out, offering reasoned arguments against this violation of religious liberty, but we also ought to be forming and expanding our Christian imaginations so that we are able to, upon our own authority, even if it is illegal, “promote spaces where the participation in the common good of God’s life can flourish” (Migrations of the Holy, 45). This could take the form of something like Mark’s Econogenesis or Kathy Kelly’s Voices in the Wilderness.