From the very beginning, when the apostolic Church operated a kind of urban commune, with the various social services that required, the Church has sponsored and supported an amazing variety of social institutions in the course of trying to carry out its multi-faceted mission on earth. Such institutions – hospitals, schools, etc. – serve simultaneously both religious and social purposes, functioning to further both the mission of the Church and the well-being of society.
A sectarian school, for example, is obviously a school. As such, it has an educational aim, identifiable regardless of its institutionally religious character. On the other hand, an excellent education cannot exhaust its identity. However well Catholic schools may perform academically, the parochial school system in the United States certainly never was intended simply to duplicate the public school system, let alone attempt to outperform it in a solely secular sense.
I myself am a grateful graduate of such schools. (I graduated from my parish elementary school 51 years ago today and from Catholic high school 47 years ago today). Whatever their limitations in comparison with public and private schools, much of what those schools did they did well. But, while valued for their academic performance and other activities, what made them different – and what has always been seen as their ultimate justification – was that they provided not only religious instruction but also a total religious environment, the effect of which on the hearts and minds of its graduates cannot completely be measured. A Catholic institution which loses that clear character and distinct mission might still do all sort of other things very well, but it will have ceased to serve its proper purpose.
So, even while striving to be good schools, hospitals, or whatever, religious institutions must continually guard against the temptation simply to serve society’s secular goals – whether the better to fit in or to achieve adequate financial or social support. Educational, cultural, and social service institutions will always be goods in themselves and of value to the mission of the Church, but that mission is never identical to the mere maintenance and preservation of such institutions or limited to their educational, cultural, and social benefits.
That is central, of course, to the current dispute about religious liberty. (I started to write “debate” about religious liberty, but a debate presumes parties actually listening and talking to one another, which is hardly the case any more in our country on any topic. So it seems more accurate to write “dispute” instead).
Americans are accustomed to accommodating particular religious groups’ objections to being compelled to engage in certain activities that are contrary to their religious beliefs – Quakers not wanting to be drafted serve in the military, Jehovah’s Witnesses not wanting to have to salute the flag, Amish not wanting to be forced to attend High School, Orthodox Jews not wanting to be required to accept Saturday employment, etc. The Catholic objection to being compelled to pay for contraceptives and abortifacients fits into this familiar category and merits the same sort of accommodation.
The Administration actually acknowledged the legitimacy of this claim in effect, by exempting churches from the HHS mandate. The problem, however, lies in the government’s imperious attempt to restrict the exemption only to a limited set of institutions based on its own narrow definition of what makes an institution really religious. But, surely, religious institutions, which also serve social, medical, or educational ends, cannot lose their religious character by simple governmental definition. That, surely, represents a restriction on religious liberty by any reasonable definition. You’d think the Administration would have learned its lesson when it tried to define who a “minister” is - and was soundly rebuffed by a unanimous Supreme Court last January in the Hosanna Tabor v. Equal Opportunity Commission case!
Obviously, exempting Quakers from the Draft and all such similar cases do not directly infringe upon the “liberty” of other citizens. Contraceptives will remain widely available in the United States whether or not religious institutions are coerced into paying for them – but religious communities may feel compelled to quit running certain socially beneficial institutions.
In Revelation 12, the Church appears as a woman in childbirth. Admittedly she is clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and with a crown of 12 stars on her head; but all is not glory and immediate triumph. Alongside her, there appears the fearsome figure of a great red dragon who attempts to devour her child. The child is not devoured, of course, and the dragon’s efforts to do so ultimately fail. In the meantime, however, the woman is forced to fly off into he wilderness, where there is space for her to be nourished for a while.
There are times to build and so become an effective player in the world. But there are also times when a greater degree of detachment may be forced upon religious communities.
Such detachment would not result in the demise of religion. It may even strengthen it. But, if religious communities find themselves forced by State action to withdraw from providing wide-ranging medical, educational, and social services (as has already begin to happen in certain instances), the State’s power will certainly be augmented, while society will be that much poorer for it.