A Government Cannot Oblige Religions to Go Against Their Convictions (Part 1)

Interview with the Archbishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico on the HHS Mandate

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By Jose Antonio Varela Vidal

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, JULY 30, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Attacks against religious liberty are happening in several parts of the world. Sometimes with diatribes, other times with bloodshed, but also through laws that infringe people’s fundamental right to believe and follow a moral conviction received from their faith.

In the United States a real “battle” is being waged between the present government and religious institutions who are fighting to prevent the implementation of the Health and Human Services mandate, which would oblige establishments run by religious entities to provide medications that threaten the life of unborn children and the principles of responsible parenthood.

ZENIT interviewed Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, Archbishop of San Juan, Puerto Rico, who was clear and energetic in presenting the current situation looming in the U.S. if this law is implemented, while at the same time being taken, perhaps, as a precedent for other countries.

ZENIT: Your Excellency, why are American bishops so concerned about the Federal Government’s Health and Human Services mandate?

Archbishop Gonzalez: The Health and Human Services regulation consists in obliging employers, including religious institutions, to give medical coverage to their employees for sterilizations and contraceptives approved by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration], including abortifacient medication, as well as obliging them to give advice and education to women on sterilization and contraceptives. Hence the concern of American bishops is very genuine, timely and extremely necessary. When a government uses its faculties to oblige religious institutions and individuals as employers to act against their principles and teachings, when it obliges them to act against their conscience, it is a sign that religious liberty is being threatened and it shows that the government, far from respecting the Constitutional clause on religious liberty, is impairing it.

ZENIT: What is the current state of this law?

Archbishop Gonzalez: At present. the following two measures are being considered in the U.S. Congress: Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (ANDA) and Respect for Right of Conscience. The first reaffirms the basic principle that no health structure should be obliged by the government to carry out abortions or take part in them. The other measure is geared to protecting the right of conscientious objection. These measures would protect the right of millions of Americans to access the health system without violating their most profound moral and religious convictions on respect for human life.

ZENIT: Has the Church mobilized in this regard, including with other religions and Christian denominations, because it is contrary to religious liberty?

Archbishop Gonzalez: The State’s pretension to oblige a religious institution or an individual as employer to go against his principles, convictions and beliefs, is certainly not a matter that concerns one single religious denomination. What is at stake here is religious liberty itself in the United States. The State is called to guarantee and protect the right of freedom of worship of every member of society as guaranteed by the Constitution. This legislation impairs this principle. It is extremely alarming and worrying that it is the government itself, main guarantor of the Magna Carta, which threatens religious liberty. Today the right of religious liberty is trampled upon with the HHS mandate; tomorrow other non-negotiable principles could easily be compromised.

In fact, given that it is a matter that touches the inalienable right of religious liberty, it concerns not only the Catholic Church but all believing citizens (and even non-believers), adhering to any religious denomination present in the United States, because this governmental action could make it clear that, with the pretext of the implementation of legislation of social and health interest, it can act at any moment against the religious liberty of any citizen. Moreover, this precedent in the United States, which up to now had been characterized by its supreme respect for the religious liberty of its citizens, can be used as the pretext by other countries to violate and to continue violating the religious liberty of its citizens.

ZENIT: Why is religious liberty important for a society?

Archbishop Gonzalez: I would like to answer this question with a quote from Pope Benedict XVI: "In particular, the Council Fathers approved, precisely 40 years ago, a Declaration on the question of religious liberty, that is, the right of persons and of communities to seek the truth and to profess their faith freely. The first words that give this document its title are 'dignitatis humanae': religious liberty derives from the special dignity of the human person, who is the only one of all the creatures on this earth who can establish a free and conscious relationship with his or her Creator. 'It is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will..., are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth'" (Dignitatis Humanae, n. 2). Cf. Angelus, December 4, 2005).

The Health and Human Services mandate that, as we have seen, goes against religious liberty, makes it feasible for any government in the United States to impede, today or tomorrow - in an underhanded way for ideological or political reasons -, believing citizens and religious institutions, in a much as givers of employment, to profess and practice their faith. And as can be deduced from the Holy Father’s words, every threat against religious liberty is a threat to human dignity itself.

ZENIT: What has been the population’s reaction to the U.S. Church’s campaign of the last two weeks?

Archbishop Gonzalez: First of all, it is necessary to highlight the timely and responsible reaction of the U.S. bishops given this frontal attack of the government on religious liberty. The campaign undertaken by the bishops and by Catholics in general in the United States, already incisive on its own, cannot be measured by its short-term impact. The U.S. bishops have very wisely carried out a multi-media and multi-platform campaign. The bishops’ intervention transcends the present circumstance. Its main objective is to form the human conscience in such a way that, beyond the present contingency, people will know their duties and rights, with God, with themselves and with others, and will never be prepared to negotiate their principles with anyone, no matter how powerful he is.

On the other hand, the present circumstance imposes efforts of immediate impact such as alerting, denouncing and educating, making use as well of the most effective network of Catholic lay ecclesial Movements which are dedicated to the defense of life and religious liberty. I was impressed by the response of the Catholic population of the United States to the call of their bishops when convoking the 'Fortnight For Freedom'. Of all the efforts, prayers is the most indispensable. The U.S. bishops and Catholic faithful, inspired in the words of the Apostle James, who assured that 'the prayer of the just man has power”, have prayed fervently, certain that ultimately 'our help comes from the Lord'.

[Translation by ZENIT]