Grave Concerns

02-19-2017Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

Many people have expressed to me their grave concerns and outright fears about the new administration in Washington, DC. At this point, such fears and concerns are still in the realm of the hypothetical since, as of now, no one’s liberties have been taken away or restricted. I will admit that if the shoe were on the other foot, I would be reacting the same way, if not more so. Let me explain what my grave concerns and fears were prior to the election. I will use one example to illustrate my point.

When the Dept. of Health and Human Services issued the “Contraception Mandate” as part of the ACA, the Catholic Bishops and others requested an accommodation from the mandate. The reason for the request was that the mandate would put us in a position to do something that was contrary to Catholic teaching. Our disagreement was not over the right of women to access contraception but with the requirement that we must pay for it despite our moral objections. Other than providing for a small accommodation for Houses of Worship, DHHS refused to accommodate our auxiliary organizations such as hospitals, colleges, nursing homes, etc. As a result, groups such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, who operate nursing homes for the very poor elderly, were forced to sue the US government since failure to implement the mandate would result in ruinous fines that would essentially force the Little Sisters and others to cease operations.

At every step of the way, the Administration chose the path of most resistance. Despite being offered a variety of ways to compromise, the Administration refused. Thus the lawsuit made its way to the US Supreme Court. The Court did not directly address the issue at hand but rather said that it appeared to them that reasonable accommodation had been offered by the Little Sisters, and the case was sent back to the lower courts to work out the proposed solutions. (The issue is still pending resolution.) The reason I point this out is that the Court never resolved the legal issues and left the door open for a new administration to pursue implementing the mandate against the objections of religious employers. You can see why appointment of a new Justice was of great concern to many voters.

In the meantime our local Diocesan Employee Health Plan was grandfathered in with the caveat that if at anytime changes were made to the plan, then the contraception mandate would apply. Rather than triggering the mandate, we have made no changes to our plan pending the outcome of the Little Sisters legal challenges. Again, if we were forced to comply with the mandate and refused, we would face fines that would amount to an existential threat to our continued existence as a Diocese with its many affiliated ministries. During the campaign one side clearly stated it supported the mandate without any accommodations for those with moral objections.

Hence my fears and concerns prior to the election. These were not what if’s or maybe’s or hypothetical or a product of my overblown imagination. Rather they were based in the historical reality, as witnessed by the many lawsuits and that the Obama DHHS stubbornly refused to find any way to accommodate the conscientious objections of many religious employers. As a result of one little regulation issued by a bureaucratic agency, the right to religious liberty was being undermined and religious groups were being threatened with a choice between the continued existence of their organizations, institutions, and ministries or self-defeating moral compromise. So maybe you can understand from our perspective why we feel we dodged a bullet in this election.

For those who have fears of the current administration, please know that the same tools that were available before the election are still available post election: the right to assembly, protest, lobby legislators, redress in Federal Courts. But one right that you might want to reconsider is the right to conscientious objection. This principle has a long history in our country, and in the past our government has found ways to accommodate the conscience of its citizens while upholding its governmental objectives (think of soldiers who conscientiously objected to fighting in war). You may find yourself in a position, as we did, in which you would morally compromise yourself if you went along with certain rules or regulations. Either we find workable ways to accommodate each other’s sincerely held moral beliefs, or we will forever be a divided society. Simply put -“you can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.”

While I realize that many of you who now fear the new Administration did not support religious employers in their claim to conscientious objection viz-a-viz the contraception mandate, I assure you that if you choose to employ an appeal to conscience based on your sincerely held moral beliefs, even if I disagree with them, I will support and defend your right to do so.

I recommend viewing the film, “Hacksaw Ridge;” it eloquently demonstrates how a government can accommodate religious objections to its own legal requirements and by doing so makes room for truly great things to happen because it respected the conscience of one citizen.

Fr. John B.