For the last year, the U.S. bishops and the Obama administration have clashed over the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate, which requires most religious employers to pay for contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilizations for employees.
The mandate, to which there are few exceptions, sparked hundreds of “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rallies across the nation, including three in the Diocese of Phoenix.
“We are here today because something un-American and dehumanizing is threatening our life together,” Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said at the Oct. 20 rally in front of the Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Court Building in downtown Phoenix.
“In the past, we treasured religious freedom,” he said. “Now, we face unprecedented threats to this fundamental building block of American culture.”
For the last year, the U.S. bishops have vigorously opposed the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate, thanking those who have joined them in criticizing “this unjust and illegal mandate.”
In the wake of President Barack Obama’s re-election Nov. 6, some Catholics are vowing to continue to fight the administration while others are calling for unity and working together to resolve differences.
Tricia Hoyt, director of Evangelization, Family Ministry, and Adult Formation at St. Patrick Parish in Scottsdale, is hoping political leaders will be able to work in a spirit of bipartisanship.
“We have again a very divided country and a very divided political leadership and it calls us again as Catholics to continue to urge people to allow the Gospel to penetrate both parties and now all of our leaders,” Hoyt said.
“I think we have to work harder than ever to urge people to cross the aisle and talk to each other and become open to real dialogue,” she said, “not just debate and discussion, [but] dialogue that agrees to seek solutions together.”
Hoyt said she and other faith-based leaders are also concerned about impending financial decisions that will be made on a national level and how they will impact the poor.
“Whatever they do, when they are contemplating whatever savings they want to make, they have to… place a circle of protection around the poor and the most vulnerable,” she said.
Deacon Paul Hursh, who serves at St. Bridget Parish in Mesa, said that the Catholic view of the election is different than others.
“I caution myself and I caution others when they look at the results of the election, to stay away from the world’s view which is predominantly about winners and losers,” he said.
“We as Church need to stay hopeful and forward-looking, knowing that God is in control — we only have to be open and cooperate in the building of the Kingdom that is ‘already, but not yet,’” Deacon Hursh said.
This is a time for courage, not fear, and to “work together against division,” he said.
“Things like the Affordable Care Act, though flawed, can also be perfected in the spirit of unity. No sense in throwing the baby out with the bath water,” Deacon Hursh said, emphasizing that “universal health care, has been, for decades, one of the goals of our bishops… and popes.”
He pointed to John XXIII and Blessed John Paul who “called for over a long period of time… universal health care as a right,” and he hopes leaders will work together to amend the flaws in the healthcare reform.
Robert Curtis, founder of CatholicFirst-USA.org, said he thought the election results made the reality of religion, especially the Catholic religion, “doubly difficult” and criticized what he said was a growing trend of secularization in the country.
“Not only do we have to contend with a growing postmodern milieu in which secularization is rampant — what Cardinal Ratzinger called ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ — but we can reasonably assume, based upon Catholic university surveys, that a significant number of Catholics voted for that dangerous pathway, despite the grave ramifications of the HHS mandate,” Curtis said.
“We are embroiled completely in a crisis of catechesis,” he said.
John Jakubczyk, a local attorney and past president of Arizona Right to Life, offered a similar take. But he also said pro-life activists are not going to accept defeat.
“We’re not going to shut down, we’re not going to change what we’re doing. We’re going to remain Catholic,” Jakubczyk said. Like Curtis, he believes the election results point to a failure of catechesis and growing trend toward secularization.
“When you have a society that accepts no-fault divorce… and allows the courts to be the arbiters of family life, when the Church has abdicated its primary responsibility toward the care of the poor and the needy in favor of the government, then what you do is you put all these things in the hands of the state and the state takes the place of religion,” Jakubczyk said.
Fr. John Ehrich, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, said that he’s been studying the trend toward secularization in America and that it is his personal belief that the country has already entered into a post-Christian era. President Obama, Fr. Ehrich said, represents “a whole host of ideas that are incongruent with Church teaching and with the Christian vision of the world.”
“The problem is that there is a big difference between intrinsic evil and things which can be reserved to prudential judgment like how to help the poor,” Fr. Ehrich said. The biggest problem he sees with the newly re-elected president, however, has to do with violation of conscience rights.
“I think that the thing we should fear the most about Obama is the fact that he’s willing to coerce people to act against their conscience,” said Fr. Ehrich, who blogs regularly at www.frjohnehrich.com.
Where do we go from here?
With such a staunchly pro-abortion president re-elected — some would say at least in part by those who identify themselves as Catholics — pro-life leaders urge the faithful to redouble their efforts and grow in faith.
“Get involved in pro-life organizations,” Jakubczyk said. “You don’t quit, you don’t give up — you do what you can at whatever level you can do it.” Organizations like 1st Way, the Aid to Women Center and Maggie’s Place save lives, Jakubczyk said, and can always use help.
Fr. Ehrich said he hopes Catholics will become more involved in the life of their parish.
“The first thing is for Catholics to really come together and support one another as Catholics within the parishes and see how they can be more immersed in that community,” Fr. Ehrich said. “I think Catholics need to return to an identity that is very much tied to their parish, to their pastor, to the sacraments.”
By building up their faith this way, Fr. Ehrich said, Catholics will then be empowered to evangelize others, especially those they come in contact with frequently such as coworkers, neighbors and classmates.
“It’s only through more Catholics and more committed Catholics that we’re ever going to make any kind of inroads into our secularized society,” Fr. Ehrich said. “It’s not going to be through a political party.”
Curtis hopes that the Year of Faith will be used as a way to urge Catholics to study the Catechism and also learn the Church’s social teaching as a way to make decisions.
Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, noted that the fight over the mandate imposed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is not over.
“The battle over the HHS mandate is going to continue and I fervently believe that we will be victorious,” Johnson said. “The battle… will continue in the judicial branch which is where I strongly believe we will succeed irrespective of the outcome of the election.”
Mike Phelan, director of the Office of Marriage and Respect Life for the Phoenix Diocese, said he hopes Catholics will learn a lesson from history.
“The Church goes through favorable cycles and it goes through persecution at times and it comes out stronger every time,” Phelan said. “We are in a time where direct persecution or removal of religious liberty has not caused our nation to be alarmed.”
He later added, “We cannot sugarcoat the results of the election.” Phelan said the election would hurt “the most innocent among us and the already staggering family. This will be especially impactful among our nation’s poor.”
New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, congratulated President Obama on his re-election, noting that Americans “have again entrusted you with a great responsibility.” The bishops, he said, hope the president will “restore a sense of civility to the public order.”
“In particular, we pray that you will exercise your office to pursue the common good, especially in care of the most vulnerable among us, including the unborn, the poor, and the immigrant,” Cardinal Dolan said. “We will continue to stand in defense of life, marriage and our first, most cherished liberty, religious freedom.”