Charles E. Rice, Faculty Contributor


Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from the first chapter of Professor Rice’s forthcoming book, Contraception and Persecution, to be published by St. Augustine’s Press in January, 2014.  To see a copy of this piece that includes footnotes, please click here.

Speaking … to …priests… I was trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularization of our society could bring….. I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in my bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.  What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop:  “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history”—Cardinal Francis George, OMI, Archbishop of Chicago.

As Cardinal George noted, the Church has a way of outlasting persecutions and bringing from them a greater good.  That record is now put to the test on a larger scale than it was in Rome in the first three centuries.  “So many Christian communities are persecuted around the globe,” said Pope Francis.  “More so now than in the early times.”  Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Observer of the Holy See to the UN, recently told the UN Human Rights Council that “more than 100,000 Christians are violently killed because of some relation to their faith every year.”

Cardinal George was optimistic in not expecting martyrdom until the successor of his successor.  The persecution of the Catholic Church in the United States is already under way. Numerous government measures would restrict the public ministries of the Church.  Catholic adoption agencies in several states have been forced to terminate their programs rather than comply with legal mandates that they place children with same-sex couples.  The Food and Drug Administration decreed that girls as young as fifteen can buy the abortifacient Morning After Pill without a prescription.  In response to a decree of a federal judge, the Obama Administration removed any age limitation on over-the-counter access to pills that can cause an abortion by preventing implantation of the embryo in the womb.  This undermines the authority of parents and the teaching of the Church on the right to life.  President Obama and his Administration promote the homosexualization of American law and culture, including especially the legalization of same-sex “marriage.”  Such an attempt to repeal Genesis (“Male and female He created them.”)  and to homosexualize the culture by force of law would seriously reduce the public ministry of the Church.  If the legal mandate for equality controls, could the Church (or universities receiving federal funds) legally deny a wedding ceremony to two Catholic men or two Catholic women?

The most immediate attack on the Church is the Health Care Mandate.  On January 20, 2012, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius ordered that health insurance must cover preventive services including all FDA-approved “contraceptive” methods, including abortifacients which are called contraceptives, sterilization procedures and patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity, without charging a co-payment, co-insurance or deductible.  Catholic dioceses, hospitals, schools, church agencies and universities, as well as non-Catholic and private employers, filed lawsuits claiming that the Mandate violates federal laws and the religious freedom protected by the First Amendment.  The suits do not themselves involve the legal status of contraception or the merits of the Church’s teaching on contraception.  Those suits are not resolved by the Supreme Court’s upholding in July 2012 of Obamacare’s Individual Mandate requiring individuals to buy health care insurance for themselves.   Later revisions of the Mandate have not resolved the problems it creates.  Bishop Daniel Jenky, C.S.C., described the effect the Mandate would have on the public ministries of the Church:

[O]ur Catholic schools, our Catholic hospitals, our Catholic Newman Centers, all our public ministries—only excepting our church buildings—could easily be shut down.  Because no Catholic institution … can ever cooperate with … killing innocent human life in the womb.

No Catholic ministry—and yes, Mr. President, for Catholics our schools and hospitals are ministries—can remain faithful to the Lordship of the Risen Christ and to his glorious Gospel of Life if they are forced to pay for abortion.

Like Cardinal George, Bishop Jenky is an optimist.  In a serious persecution not even the “church buildings” will be permitted to be used as “public ministries” of the Church.  As Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the USCCB, put it, the Mandate would reduce religion to a private activity.  “Never before,” he said, “have we faced this kind of challenge to our ability to engage in the public square as people of faith.”

Religious freedom is about more than gathering in church buildings for worship.  It requires freedom for “caritas,” the Church’s “service of charity,” in its numerous manifestations including the “commitment to justice” through the effort “to help form consciences in political life.” The Mandate threatens to reduce the Church to a privatized entity incapable of exercising its ministry of “caritas.”  The Mandate, however, presents to the Church a teaching moment on contraception as well as on conscience.

Contraception is a First Commandment issue:  Who is God? The contracepting couple, in the words of John Paul II, “claim a power which belongs solely to God: the power to decide, in a final analysis, the coming into existence of a human person.”  The nearly universal practice of contraception has paved the way for a similar assertion of divine prerogative by the Obama Regime in its claim of discretionary power to nullify the due rights of conscience with respect to the prohibitory law of God.  The Mandate is a preliminary event in this accelerating persecution of the Church and of believing Catholics.

The persecution of the Church does not depend on the outcome of the Mandate litigation.  If the lawsuits succeed and the Supreme Court strikes down the Mandate, that result will not stop the accelerating persecution.  The hostility of President Obama and his Regime is not the entire reason the Church is exposed to persecution.  If Obama had never been elected, the Catholic Church and the secular State would still have been on a collision course on foundational issues of family, the transmission of life, the right to life of each human being, economic justice and especially the many issues associated with same-sex “marriage.”

If, on the other hand, the Supreme Court upholds the Health Care Mandate, we will find out the hard way how a persecution progresses.  In his 2012 address at Notre Dame, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, discussed “Religious Freedom, Persecution of the Church, and Martyrdom.”  Archbishop Viganò’s analysis offers help in recognizing the early stages of persecution:

There are those who question whether religion or religious belief should have a role in public life.  …[P]ersecution begins with this reluctance to accept the public role of religion in these affairs, especially … when the protection of religious freedom involves beliefs that the powerful of the political society do not share…. [T]he intention … of the persecutor is… to eradicate the public witness to Jesus Christ and His Church.  An accompanying objective can be the incapacitation of the faith by enticing people to renounce their beliefs, or at least their public manifestations, rather than undergo great hardships … if believers persist in their resistance to apostasy.

“The plan is straightforward: if the faith persists, so will the hardships.  In more recent times, martyrdom may not necessitate torture and death; … those who desire to harm the faith may choose the path of ridiculing the believers so that they become outcasts from mainstream society and are marginalized from meaningful participation in public life…. While… persecution can mirror… martyrdom, other elements can be directed to sustaining difficulty, annoyance, and harassment that are designed to frustrate the beliefs of the targeted … persons rather than to eliminate these persons…. [T]he objective of persecution is to remove from the public square the beliefs themselves and the public manifestations without necessarily eliminating the persons who hold the beliefs.  The victimization may not be designed to destroy the believer but only the belief and its open manifestations.  From the public viewpoint, the believer remains but the faith eventually disappears.”

Archbishop Viganò noted that, in the United States, “we witness in an unprecedented way a platform being assumed by a major political party, having intrinsic evils among its basic principles, and Catholic faithful publicly supporting it.  There is a divisive strategy at work here, an intentional dividing of the Church; through this strategy, the body of the Church is weakened, and thus the Church can be more easily persecuted.”  That is why the Health Care Mandate is merely a preliminary event.