As we come to the close of the "Fortnight for Freedom," I’m reminded of an interview with Christopher Hitchens that I saw years ago. For those of you who don’t know, Hitchens, who died in 2012, was an essayist, political commentator, cultural observer and avowed atheist. He was one of these new atheists, the kind that are not content with merely being atheists themselves, but insist that everyone else should be too.
The interview I saw took place because of his then-recent book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. That should probably give you a sense of Hitchens’ approach to life. The interviewer, Peter Robinson, asked Hitchens why he was insulted when people asked him, “If you do not believe in God, then from where do you get your sense of right and wrong?”
Hitchens explained that he was insulted by this question because it suggested that unless we believe in some mythical being we cannot possibly know that murder is wrong or know that we should return lost property or choose to give blood. In other words, Hitchens argued that just because he didn’t believe in God didn’t mean he couldn’t be a decent guy, a man who treats his neighbor as he himself would want to be treated.
The interview strikes me now, during this Fortnight for Freedom, because Hitchens is right: We need not believe in God, much less be a faithful Catholic, in order to be nice to people, to be civil to one another and to be socially responsible.
Hitchens’ observation ought to cause us to ask why we are Catholic.
Are we Catholic so that we can be civil with one another, pay our taxes and get along?
Are we Catholic so that we can feel good about giving blood, returning a lost pocket book and being decent people?
Is Hitchens right that this is as good as we get? And if it is, then why do we bother with all this Catholic business if we can be good without believing in God? Or is there more?
The way we answer these questions will determine how we see this question of religious liberty and the freedom to serve, which is the theme for this year’s Fortnight for Freedom.
You see, the world believes that there is no difference between Christopher Hitchens’ humanitarianism and the service for the poor that we engage in as Catholics. This attitude is quite clearly seen in the way the current administration has dealt with the objections to the HHS mandate, and it is on full display in its attitude towards the Little Sisters of the Poor.
The Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order founded by St. Jeanne Jugan that runs nursing homes for the elderly poor, serve those they care for with love and joy. The mission statement for the Little Sisters reads, in part, that they work to serve the poor so that “they will be welcomed as Christ, cared for as family and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to himself.”
Imagine those words on the website of a government agency.
Nevertheless, the administration insists that theirs is no religious activity. The Obama administration believes — and more and more of the culture believes — that when Catholics feed the poor, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty and educate the ignorant, we are not engaged in anything more amazing than being good people, just as anyone would be good, even someone like Christopher Hitchens.
But what the administration and our society don’t understand is that when we do these things, we don’t do it just because it’s the nice thing to do. We serve the poor because, along with wanting to do the right thing, we hope upon hope that in encounters with the poor we might catch a glimpse of the Jesus whom we love, so that we might encounter the Lord.
We do it because the love of Christ Jesus urges us on to love.
Today, in the United States of America, Catholics are being told by the state that the Little Sisters’ care for Christ in their midst is no different than any humanitarian impulse.
We believe there is a great difference. This is not to malign those engaged in humanitarian work or who do good deeds. We need not even say that one is better than another. A poor man well fed is still a man well fed. But certainly the motivation is different, and the attitudes are different.
“Not so,” says the administration, claiming there is no difference. It has decided for us that it makes no difference whether we are motivated by a deep love for Christ Jesus or by the same general sense of goodness that Christopher Hitchens rightly pointed out exists in many people. It says it doesn’t matter.
Well, it may not matter to the government, but it matters to the elderly served by the Little Sisters of the Poor, to the homeless served and to the students educated in Catholic institutions. It makes a big difference to them.
Some have argued that the government’s actions are nothing new and that the bishops are overreacting. It is true that there have been times in U.S. history when the state determined that the religious activity in question harmed the common good. The government stepped in and stopped that activity.
The Church would support that sort of oversight because the Church teaches that when a religion’s activities harm the common good, it is the right and the obligation of the state to step in. The Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious liberty affirms that the liberty exists “within due limits.” But that’s not what’s happening today.
The Obama administration is not telling us Catholics that our work for the poor harms the common good. For the first time in U.S. history, the government is telling a religious people that a specific practice of their faith isn’t really part of their faith, isn’t really an outgrowth of who they are as a faith community.
Astonishingly, the government is telling us Catholics that when we serve Jesus in the poor we are not being religious. It’s telling the Little Sisters of the Poor that they are not a religious employer.
This is what we mean when we say that the administration is telling us Catholics when we’re being Catholic and when we’re not. This is a violation of the most basic social justice. This is offensive. This is why the HHS contraception mandate must be rescinded.
All Catholics, then, have a moral obligation to contact their representatives, contact the White House, contact the head of the Department of Health and Human Services and demand that the mandate be rescinded. We ought to demand that our representatives pass a health-care conscience-rights act. We ought to advocate for religious liberty to make this Fortnight for Freedom bear fruit.
Omar Gutierrez is the manager of the Office of Missions and Justice for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, and the author of The Urging of Christ's Love:The Saints and the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church.