The legacy of John F. Kennedy has reached fruition, demonstrating once again the law of unintended consequences. In 1960, the then-current incarnation of the “Know Nothing” party was circulating the notion that if Kennedy were to be elected, the Pope would become the puppet master of the President, resulting in a de facto theocracy in America. Not too surprising, considering that anti-Catholicism is the last socially acceptable bigotry left in America. For those of you too young to remember, Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected president in America.
Kennedy’s real contribution to today’s problem with the HHS mandate on insurance happened in a speech to a gathering of Protestant ministers in Houston. JFK sought to dispel the worries of the reformationists, and to do so, he made it a point to state that his Catholicism, however nominal, would play no part in his public life. In fact, he said: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act…” Or this: “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source…”
Those quotes demonstrate Kennedy’s position that his Catholicism was to have no effect on his performance of his office. But as Portia says in The Merchant of Venice, “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh.’” And like Shylock’s inability to separate flesh from blood, Kennedy was no more able to separate his Catholicism from his politics than any of us are able to separate our religion from our politics. One must give way to the other, where a conflict exists. You can not serve both God and Mammon, nor can you truly believe one way and act another, without doing violence to your beliefs.
And now, some fifty years later, we have gone from “I won’t be a Catholic president,” to “You cannot be a Catholic hospital or school if you offer health insurance.” The Department of Health and Human Services, headed by a nominal Catholic, has issued a final rule that requires Catholic employers who offer health insurance, to ensure that the coverage they offer provides no-cost access to contraception, abortifacient drugs, and abortion services. Passing over the irony of “Health and Human Services” forcing coverage aimed a killing humans, the current administration has taken a position that is not just religion neutral, but that is decidedly anti-Catholic.
Now to be fair, the new regulations do provide for a “religious exemption,” although it is so narrowly tailored that Jesus and the 12 apostles wouldn’t qualify.To be eligible an organization must meet four strict criteria, including the requirement that it both hire and serve primarily people of its own faith. Catholic schools and hospitals would have to eject their non-Catholic employees, students and patients, or purchase health coverage that violates their moral and religious teaching. The exemption provides no protection at all to sponsors and providers of health plans for the general public, to pro-life people who own businesses, or to individuals with a moral or religious objection to these procedures.
If the regulation stands, again demonstrating the law of unintended consequences, we can expect that many Catholic employers will cease to offer health insurance coverage. Faced with paying for something they consider immoral, their choices will be to drop the benefit, drop non-catholic employees and consumers, or to pay. The USCCB has already said that the third option is unthinkable. Option one or two results in a loss of coverage for employees, or a loss of services provided to the poor and needy. Coming from the administration that trumpeted better access to healthcare for all, it seems odd, doesn’t it?
It seems odd, unless you’re a suspicious, cantankerous, mistrustful sort of person, like me. Assume, arguendo, that the regulation is allowed to stand. Catholic hospitals will close their doors; the other options being unthinkable. Unlikely? Not at all. Look at Massachusetts, where the church got out of adoption services over a same-sex couple mandate. Once the Church is out of the health care vocation, who will provide the services for the poor and under-served? Why, the government will. That will render the regulation moot, and we will all pay for those services via taxes, or forced participation in the Obamacare insurance pool.
Today, it’s the Catholics. But the Jews aren’t far behind, nor are the Protestants. When the First Amendment falls, it falls for all. Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson, a pretty bright guy, said: “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.” I can’t imagine a clearer example of that than the current HHS regulation.