John Zmirak received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University. He has taught at Catholic and secular colleges, including Tulane University. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. He has served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family Magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. His new book, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, is now available. Check his new blogs and archived columns at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.
I greeted with initial relief today’s news that the Obama administration might/maybe/possibly have loosened the terms of its administrative diktat on abortifacient and contraceptive “health care” to the point where the Catholic Church would not have to close down in America. I saw the Facebook reactions, as everyone breathed an initial sigh of relief, which soon dissipated as Catholic commentators rummaged through the details of the presidential edict, and found that not much had changed. A few more of the specifically religious institutions in the U.S. would be exempt from the mandate to violate their consciences, but not all of them—and there was no relief at all for private employers who object to dispensing little murder pills. The goal of this initiative, as Phil Lawler rightly points out, is to divide Catholics and make those who continue fighting the Obama initiative seem like extremist cranks who are impossible to satisfy. If history is any indicator, this tactic will probably work.
In one way, I am less bothered by the contraceptive mandate than most. In one sense, it was an act of divine retribution against those bishops who shamelessly lobbied on behalf of Obama’s intrinsically tyrannical health care plan, which violated the Catholic principle of subsidiarity that Pius XI described as absolutely central to any political decision making. You want to empower an omnicompetent federal bureaucracy to take over 1/6 of the national economy? Then don’t expect that your little fiefdom will long be free of Leviathan’s grip—whether or not you’ve painted a cross on its side. The sheer speed and savagery with which the Democrats tried to steam-roller religious liberty may just have taught a lesson to those churchmen who are still nostalgic for the glory days of Franklin Roosevelt, when bishops encouraged the growth of big government, confident that they could pull some of its strings from behind the scenes. If that delusion, at least, has been dispelled, we’ll have gained something from this debacle.
No, what troubles me even more than the worthy owners of Hobby Lobby having to fight off federal fines is the stark reality revealed by how this mandate has played out: We now live in something like a monarchy. We Catholics wait with baited breath to see whether the president will decree the closure of our institutions—or decide to leave us alone. Catholic Poles lived much like this under the sway of the Russian Czar. The Congress isn’t voting on an issue this vital to our liberties—instead, it has granted the president almost arbitrary power to decide. We petition him for mercy, and wait for his decision. Our only other hope, if the czar does not decide to grant us the privilege of keeping our churches and schools in existence, is that the judges appointed by past (more benevolent) czars will outvote those appointed by this czar, and declare the imperial decree null and void. Is this the free system my father served in World War II to help preserve? It sure doesn’t smell like it.
Religious liberty is rightly called the first freedom. But when key areas of our day-to-day lives are subject to rule by decree, all our other liberties are largely out the window. Meanwhile, the president is using executive orders to round up Americans’ guns, and legal theorists are floating trial balloons in the media, asking whether we “really need” the Constitution. These are frightening times to live in. I hope that the next Republican presidential candidate is someone committed not to using the bloated powers of the presidency to advance some narrow agenda, but rather to revitalizing the freedoms we once held dear.