West Texas Catholic: Bishop Zurek, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced Jan. 20 that nonprofit groups that do not provide contraceptive coverage because of their religious beliefs will get an additional year ‘to adapt to this new rule.’ This is clearly an attack on the right of conscience.
What does the Church have to say about the right of conscience and how important is conscience?
Bishop Zurek: First of all, it’s much broader than just contraceptives, the Order also includes pills that can act as abortifacients. So it is a very serious threat to our Catholic moral tradition and belief.
The Right of Conscience, or Freedom of Conscience, is supreme in our Catholic tradition. St. Thomas Aquinas was very clear on that point. The Second Vatican Council even refined this more. The Second Vatican Council teaches that “Conscience is that inner sanctum within each individual human being where the individual meets God.”
In that inner sanctum, this dialogue that exists between the person and God is referred to as conscience. Then when a person makes a decision, he must be free to exercise it and to live by it. Conscience for any human person should be supreme! For the Christian, there is no option. He must obey his conscience! Wherever one realizes in conscience, after study of doctrine, entering into prayer, looking at all the possible avenues of a particular solution to a moral dilemma, whatever that individual conscience comes to in conclusion, must be followed. So the right or the freedom or conscience in our Catholic tradition is supreme.
WTC: How important is the right or freedom of conscience in the American tradition?
Bishop Zurek: I think both terms are appropriate. We have Freedom of Conscience. It stems from the Bill of Rights in which the Constitution guarantees Freedom of Religion. It is also a right—Thomas Jefferson is the one who spoke of conscience as an individual right. It has been of paramount importance even in our civil American tradition. Jefferson wrote, “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprise of the civil authority.”
Jefferson is quite clear. The right of conscience has been invoked in many aspects in the lives of the citizens of this country. Historically, this Right has never been violated until now, in this recent Order.
WTC: Has the federal government in the past respected conscientious objections to procedures such as sterilization that might violate religious beliefs?
Bishop Zurek: Absolutely! I can give an example of a law, in effect since 1973 that says that no individual is required to take part in “any part of a health service program or research activity funded in whole or in part under a program administered by the Secretary of Health and Human Services” if it is “contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
It’s interesting that even the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which requires most of its’ health plans to cover contraception, will exempt religiously affiliated plans and protects the conscience of even the health care professionals in other plans. So currently, prior to this decree, no federal law required anyone to purchase, sell, sponsor or be covered by a private health plan that violates his or her conscience. So, yes, this right or this freedom has been respected, up to this point.
WTC: How has Health and Human Services departed from that?
Bishop Zurek: By issuing this mandate for coverage of sterilization and contraceptives (including long-standing injections and implants and “morning after pills” that may cause an early abortion), in virtually all private health care plans.
In August 2011, HHS included these procedures in a list of “preventive services for women” to be required in health care plans issued on or after Aug. 1, 2012. But on January 20, HHS reaffirmed its mandate while deferring enforcement against some religious employers until August 2013. That is a very interesting at best and very contradictory statement. Basically, the administration is saying we have one year to prepare ourselves “to violate our conscience.” This is an egregious offense against the dignity of the personhood of every human being.
WTC: Is it appropriate for HHS to require coverage of these “preventative services”?
Bishop Zurek: The Catholic Church would say absolutely “no”! The other services on the HHS list seek to prevent serious disease, such as breast cancer, lung cancer and AIDS.
Cardinal-elect Timothy Dolan mentioned in his press conference “pregnancy is not a disease,” and that seems to be the basic philosophical problem, not refering to pregnancy as the natural course of human reproduction for the continuation of society, but almost looking upon it as a disease. The Institute of Medicine Committee that compiled the “preventive services” list for HHS said in its report that unintended pregnancy is “a condition for which safe and effective prevention and treatment need to be more widely available,” which we think is setting the stage for mandated coverage of abortion as the “treatment” when prevention fails.
In the Sunday, Feb. 19 issue of The West Texas Catholic, Bishop Zurek discusses this issue further and offers his thoughts for a solution to this dispute that would be acceptable.