(UPDATE: Some friends kindly pointed out to me that there is no context for this letter. I am therefore providing this link. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/conscience-protection/index.cfm. Basically the HHS has declared that all companies must provide insurance which provides full coverage for services which are contrary to Catholic teaching. However, the usual exemption for religious organizations has been so narrowly defined in this case, that almost all religious charities, hospitals, and other services will not qualify for the exemption. This is a blatant attack on the First Amendment's protection of the exercise of religion.)
To the government of the United States of America:
I do not address this message to the Obama administration or to any particular member of government, for the issues which are herein addressed are ones which several administrations of both the Republican and Democrat parties have been at fault, even if not to the same degree. There appears to be a great misconception among the elected officials of our government concerning what constitutes the “free exercise of religion.” In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that, among some of those in office, the free exercise of religion is some sort of privilege for which the American citizen must bow in subservience to the government. The fact is that our Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion – which means that the government is prohibited from enacting laws which inhibit that exercise.
A note must be made as to what constitutes the “exercise” of religion. The apparent view of many officials is that this is limited to attending religious services and teaching what is believed. Indeed, the recent declaration by the HHS makes it clear that they only consider such to be an exercise of religion when done specifically with members of one's own faith. It is not for the government to decide what constitutes “the exercise” of any religion. That is determined by the doctrines of each religion. If the government gets to take over this role, then it is determining what is and is not doctrine.
Religion is how a person lives out his faith, and it applies to all aspects of his life. What are commonly referred to as philanthropic or social services in our society are, in fact, exercises of religion for Catholics as well as for members of many other faiths. We are called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit those in prison, bury the dead, admonish sinners, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive injuries, and pray for the living and the dead. For us, these are acts of faith, and we do them first and foremost because we are followers of Christ. Those institutions commonly referred to as Catholic schools, Catholic charities, Catholic hospitals, Catholic book stores, and many other Catholic organizations are, in fact, works of our ministry as followers of Christ and members of His universal priesthood. They are part of how we exercise our religion.
Catholics are required by our faith to be good citizens. We are to obey the lawful government authority under which we live. However, when doing so comes into direct conflict with the practice of our faith, we are to obey God rather than men. Thus did Jesus drive the money changers out of the Temple, and thus did His Apostles and countless of His followers defy the Roman authorities even when all they had to do was acknowledge the Roman gods along with their own. For Catholics, the faith is an integral whole, and any who would be guilty of violating or renouncing any part of it is guilty of violating and renouncing the faith entirely. For this reason, it has been said that the difference between a dissenting Catholic and a Protestant is that the Protestant has more integrity. You need to understand that requiring Catholic institutions to provide that which our faith does not allow is nothing less than what the Romans did during the height of the persecutions. I am speaking here about the demand rather than the penalty. The Romans were content to let the Christians have their God, but demanded that they also accept the Roman gods. The government of the United States of America has just told its Catholic population that we are free to have our beliefs, but demands that we act in violation of them.
In a way, I am glad that this has come about. It is finally opening the eyes of people of faith to the true dangers to religious freedom posed by an ever-growing government as it has stretched its tentacles into aspects of religious life - which includes how we exercise our religion in public life. Even those who were your ardent supporters have been taken aback, shocked at the audacity of this move. They may even begin to realize the general erosion of freedom as the federal behemoth has encroached far beyond the intended limits of its Constitutional charter. You have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve. Yes, we are waking up in great numbers, and we will remember your actions in future elections.