In an editorial entitled, "Stop the erosion of religious liberty," The Catholic Free Press, official newspaper of the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts, laments that, "The Obama administration has embarked on a systematic effort to erode religious liberty to the point of non-existence by attempting to restrict it solely to freedom of worship. Through administrative policies and mandates, religious liberty and freedom of conscience in the United States is under attack, as witnessed by the most recent 'accommodation.'..The Obama administration has been chipping away at the right of religious institutions to abide by their beliefs when those beliefs oppose the secularist agenda, particularly in the arena of morality. This was clearly evident in the decision not to renew a federal grant by the Department of Health and Human Services to the bishops' Migration and Refugee Services for its human trafficking program because it would not provide the full range of reproductive services, including abortion and contraception, to human trafficking victims and unaccompanied refugee minors...President Obama made the decision to impose the Department of Health and Human Services' Interim Final Rules on Preventive Services, requiring all private health plans, including those of Catholic hospitals, charities and schools, to provide coverage of prescription contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization for women. The so-called "religious employer" exemption that was put forth with these rules is so narrowly defined that it is meaningless. Unless a religious institution employs and serves only individuals of the same religious tradition, it does not qualify for the exemption. Therefore, Catholic hospitals and schools who serve people of all faiths, precisely because of their Catholic mission, do not qualify for the exemption. The recent 'accommodation' offered in response to the outcry that resulted from this mandate, which was unquestionably a direct assault on the Roman Catholic Church's religious liberty, does not lessen the concerns initially raised...We cannot lose sight of the fact that the 'accommodation' does not alter the Obama administration's mandate promoting contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs as a matter of government policy. It is particularly troubling that the attitude toward human life identifies pregnancy as a disease, posing a threat to one's health.."
How did we get to where we are in the United States? In the words of Archbishop Charles Chaput, spoken in 2009, "40 years of American Catholic complacency and poor formation are bearing exactly the fruit we should have expected...We can't talk about following St. Paul and converting our culture until we sober up and get honest about what we've allowed ourselves to become. We need to stop lying to each other..."
Once a people appeal to conscience in order to condone sin, it is only a matter of time before such sin is openly mandated. Long before contraception was being mandated by the government, there were those in the Church - including throughout the Diocese of Worcester - who were unleashing the leaven of infidelity by neglecting to preach against sin or by appealing to a dissenting notion of the primacy of conscience.
Richard Blanchard was documenting this infidelity (within the Worcester Diocese) at the same time I was writing against it in the pages of The Catholic Free Press more than twenty years ago. For example, in his newsletter "Just The Facts," No. 6, (1993), Richard noted how a Couple-to-Couple team was teaching CCD students preparing for Confirmation in Leominster, Massachusetts (St. Leo's Parish) that, "If your conscience convinces you that birth control is right, even if the Church says its wrong, you can practice birth control and not be sinning." And then Richard explains: "This has been taught for over 20 years and still is being taught in this diocese [Worcester]. The basis for this teaching is dissent and a dissenting concept of the primacy of conscience which is nothing less than situation ethics."
In the same newsletter, Richard Blanchard noted that, "During the episcopate of Timothy J. Harrington...dissent and disobedience has flourished and taken deep roots....in September of 1984 Sister Anna Kane was appointed Vicar of Religious and Director of the then Office of Women, at the same time she became a member of Bishop Harrington's administrative cabinet. She became very militant against Humanae Vitae. Under the administration of Fr. Piermarini, (now Msgr), the religious education department employed Dr. Vincent Forde, Bernard Cooke and Alice Laffey as instructors of the Education in Ministry Program, also known as the Master Catechist Program which has for its goal, master certification for CCD teaching. All [of these instructors] openly strong advocates against the teaching on birth control in Humanae Vitae."
Within the pages of The Catholic Free Press, Humanae Vitae was openly mocked. For example, in his "Essay in Theology" column entitled "Humanae Vitae; a troubling silence (CFP, August 13, 1993), dissident priest Father Richard P. McBrien referred to the Church as "a dysfunctional family" because it will not change its teaching on the sinfullness of artificial contraception to appease those who just cannot or will not accept it.
As a result of 40 years of poor catechesis - or none at all - and outright complacency throughout the Catholic Church in America, too many people today (including sadly, many Catholics) have come to view conscience as a sort of fortress built so as to shelter them from the exacting demands of truth. In the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "In the Psalms we meet from time to time the prayer that God should free man from his hidden sins. The Psalmist sees as his greatest danger the fact that he no longer recognizes them as sins and thus falls into them in apparently good conscience. Not being able to have a guilty conscience is a sickness...And thus one cannot aprove the maxim that everyone may always do what his conscience allows him to do: In that case the person without a conscience would be permitted to do anything. In truth it is his fault that his conscience is so broken that he no longer sees what he as a man should see. In other words, included in the concept of conscience is an obligation, namely, the obligation to care for it, to form it and educate it. Conscience has a right to respect and obedience in the measure in which the person himself respects it and gives it the care which its dignity deserves. The right of conscience is the obligation of the formation of conscience. Just as we try to develop our use of language and we try to rule our use of rules, so must we also seek the true measure of conscience so that finally the inner word of conscience can arrive at its validity.
For us this means that the Church's magisterium bears the responsibility for correct formation. It makes an appeal, one can say, to the inner vibrations its word causes in the process of the maturing of conscience. It is thus an oversimplification to put a statement of the magisterium in opposition to conscience. In such a case I must ask myself much more. What is it in me that contradicts this word of the magisterium? Is it perhaps only my comfort? My obstinacy? Or is it an estrangement through some way of life that allows me something which the magisterium forbids and that appears to me to be better motivated or more suitable simply because society considers it reasonable? It is only in the context of this kind of struggle that the conscience can be trained, and the magisterium has the right to expect that the conscience will be open to it in a manner befitting the seriousness of the matter. If I believe that the Church has its origins in the Lord, then the teaching office in the Church has a right to expect that it, as it authentically develops, will be accepted as a priority factor in the formation of conscience." (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Keynote Address of the Fourth Bishops' Workshop of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, on "Moral Theology Today: Certitudes and Doubts," February 1984).
In the same address, Cardinal Ratzinger explains that, "Conscience is understood by many as a sort of deification of subjectivity, a rock of bronze on which even the magisterium is shattered....Conscience appears finally as subjectivity raised to the ultimate standard."
And subjectivity raised to the ultimate standard gives rise to dictatorship. For, as Pope John Paul II reminded us in Centesimus Annus, "Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. It requires that the necessary conditions be present for the advancement both of the individual through education and formation in true ideals, and of the 'subjectivity' of society through the creation of structures of participation and shared responsibility. Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and sceptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism."