Monday, August 6, 2012

Martin Luther King and the Bishops: An Unjust Law "Cannot Be Obeyed"

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its April 12 pastoral letter on religious liberty, has declared "an unjust law cannot be obeyed." The Fortnight for Freedom campaign began in response to this pastoral letter.

How is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop's April 2012 letter on religious freedom different from the bishops' pronouncements on domestic and international issues over the past 20 years? Commentator R. Michael Dunnigan takes up this question in the weekly issue of the Internet newsletter Catholic World Report.  Unlike pastoral letters dealing with women's rights and the threat of weapons of mass destruction, the bishops' statement on religious liberty--Our First, Most Cherished Liberty--released April 12, speaks truth to power, says Dunnigan--declaring that the unjust law known as the HHS abortion mandate "cannot be obeyed." The document "holds out the promise of a new era of gravity, clarity, and courage." Dunnigan writes: 

The bishops ... show force by deploring the duplicity with which the Obama administration has forced the HHS mandate on the country. The mandate is offensive, not only because of its content, but also because of its context. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York (the current president of the US bishops’ conference) reports that President Obama assured him in November 2011 that the implementation of the health care reform law would protect rights of conscience and would not jeopardize the work of Catholic institutions in the fields of education, health care, and service to the poor. 

However, the administration’s announcement on January 20, 2012 that the HHS mandate would remain unchanged was a clear repudiation of the president’s assurance to Cardinal Dolan. Following a renewed outcry from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the president announced a so-called “compromise” or “accommodation” on February 10, 2012, but this measure turned out to be nothing more than a cynical ploy and an empty assurance. 

The Obama “accommodation” purportedly would spare Catholic institutions from having to provide contraceptives by requiring their insurers to provide them. However, this solution is unacceptable because many Catholic institutions are self-insured, and thus still would be required to provide contraceptives under the so-called “compromise.” In addition, even for those institutions that are not self-insured, they too would end up paying for contraceptives, albeit indirectly, through insurance premiums. In Most Cherished Liberty, the bishops advert to these demeaning and cynical tactics by aptly describing them as “equivocal words and deceptive practices.” 

The third notable feature of Most Cherished Liberty is a subtle but important transition that the bishops make in the passage described immediately above. In late 2011 and early 2012, the bishops in their public statements expressed concern primarily with gaining the exemption for Catholic institutions that those entities previously had enjoyed in the administration of federal health care programs. By the time that they issued Most Cherished Liberty in April 2012, however, the bishops were making much broader claims for freedom. That is, they now were seeking not merely a broader exemption to cover a wider range of Catholic institutions, but rather a complete repeal of the HHS mandate.
They had come to realize that an exemption for Catholic institutions would do nothing to protect Catholic individuals, Catholic business owners, or indeed non-Catholics and nonbelievers who equally might have moral objections to including contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs in their health care plans. This deeper appreciation of freedom led the bishops to make their most ringing claim: 

In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. … An unjust law “is no law at all.” It cannot be obeyed, and therefore one does not seek relief from it, but rather its repeal. 

This transition is moving and momentous. There was nothing wrong with the bishops’ attempts in late 2011 and early 2012 to protect Catholic institutions, but Most Cherished Liberty goes further by expanding the bishops’ vision to include the conscience rights of all Catholics and indeed all fellow citizens. This shift decisively eliminates all intimations of interest group politics, and it manifests an unmistakable concern for the common good.

Interestingly, Dunnigan does not mention or quote the bishops' references to the Reverend Martin Luther King's 1963 Letter from  Birmingham Jail. Here, King answers fellow clergymen who have condemned the direct activism of the civil rights movement in opposing racial injustice in America. King notes: "In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action."  For any American pondering the importance of the bishops' call to disobey the Obama administration's unjust HHS mandate, King's Letter from Birmingham Jail is required reading.

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