As Pope Francis arrives for his first-ever visit to the United States, the Catholic Church in America faces uncertain times. For the past several years, the Church has been under a state of constant legal and cultural assault.
Most notably, the Health and Human Services mandate requiring that employers cover products and services like contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization implicates scores of Catholic business owners and Catholic charitable institutions, many of whom are still fighting in court for a basic exemption. While the Supreme Court has ruled that religious owners of closely held companies with objections to the mandate do not have to comply, the fate of religious charities is uncertain.
The Little Sisters of the Poor have become the face of the nonprofit opposition to the mandate. The order of nuns, who live out their charism that every life is precious by caring for impoverished elderly people, is likely to have their case heard at the Supreme Court this fall. In a stunning ruling, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided against them, a decision that dissenting judges on that court said was “contrary to all precedent concerning the free exercise of religion” and “will not long stand.”
Their fate will determine that of countless other Catholic charities and schools that cannot comply. One such school is the University of Notre Dame. The self-insured Catholic school has been a battleground for religious liberty for years. It was in a commencement address at Notre Dame that President Obama made the promise heard around the Church, assuring Catholics his administration would “honor the conscience of those that disagree with abortion and draft a sensible conscience clause.” This was a promise that he reiterated in a personal meeting with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York.
The passage of the Affordable Care Act relied on other empty promises, including the assurance that health care exchanges would not be used to fund abortion — or, in President Obama’s words to Congress, “under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience protections will remain in place.” That assurance, on which lone holdout Bart Stupak staked his vote, turned out to be another bald-faced lie. A quick scan of federal court dockets confirms this.
But the assault on the Church and her institutions is not limited to legal battles over Obamacare. In another high-profile Supreme Court case, the Obama administration sought to overturn longstanding legal precedent that protects the right of religious groups like the Catholic Church to appoint their own ministers. The administration’s position in the case was so extreme that justices, including one of President Obama’s own appointees to the Court, expressed audible shock at the arguments. The Court’s decision was 9-0 in favor of the religious groups.
Suffering countless losses in the courts, the government has turned to other tactics. When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops refused to send victims of crimes like human slavery and sex trafficking to abortion clinics, it was stripped of all federal funding. Countless Catholic adoption agencies around the country have been closed because of the Church’s traditional beliefs about marriage. The administration took away the United States’ separate embassy to the Holy See and crammed its diplomats into the embassy to Italy, as if the nations were one and the same.
And, in the latest jab, President Obama lined up a slate of outspoken critics of Catholic Church teaching to welcome Pope Francis to the White House, a move that has drawn concern and pushback from the Vatican. This brazen move essentially sums up the state of affairs. Top government officials want photo ops with the pope and one-liners to support their agenda, all while using that very agenda to undermine the Church at every turn.
The Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental provider of health care, education and charitable services to the poor. Orders like the Little Sisters of the Poor and institutions like Catholic Charities are living out Pope Francis‘ call to serve the least of these, and they are paying a political price for seeking to do so in accordance with their most basic beliefs. As Pope Francis enthralls millions this week, it’s worth reflecting on the reality of things here. The current administration is systematically turning American Catholics into second-class citizens and uprooting the Church’s blooming works of charity for the poor, the disabled, the marginalized and the suffering.
• Ashley E. McGuire is a Senior Fellow with The Catholic Association.
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