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Commit to courageous Christian leadership
Sep. 28, 2011 - On Aug. 15, 1975, Bishop Nguyen Van Thuan was arrested in Saigon. He spent the next 13 years in prison—nine of them in solitary confinement.
His crime? He was appointed coadjutor archbishop of Saigon.
The Communist government believed Bishop Van Thuan’s appointment was a conspiracy between the Vatican and western governments and they believed he was at the heart of this conspiracy.
During his years of confinement, Bishop Van Thuan ministered to thousands of Vietnamese inmates. He provided pastoral care to Catholics, and evangelized guards and non-Christian prisoners. He carved a cross to wear from scraps of wood fastened with electrical wire. He celebrated Mass with hidden hosts and drops of wine. He heard confessions, he preached, he witnessed to truth.
In the face of unjust imprisonment, Bishop Van Thuan found an opportunity to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
After his release, Bishop Van Thuan was praised for his heroic leadership. But he saw his life as that of an ordinary Christian leader responding to injustice.
“The greatest failure in leadership,” he said, “is for the leader to be afraid to speak and act as a leader.”
Today, more than ever, Christianity needs leaders committed to truth in the face of injustice.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a rule that requires nearly all private health insurance plans to provide contraceptive and sterilization services to women. Catholic institutions and other religious groups who oppose contraception are not exempted.
This rule is unjust on two levels. First, it treats pregnancy and fertility as diseases instead of gifts. Second, it places a major focus on mandatory coverage for surgical sterilization and all contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including the so-called “morning after pill,” which causes an abortion in the early weeks of pregnancy by preventing the implantation of the human embryo.
The rule even mandates “education and counseling” to promote these measures among women of reproductive capacity. By mandating contraceptive care be provided in health insurance, the Department of Health and Human Services sends a message that avoiding pregnancy is a right and expectation for all Americans.
This HHS rule forces virtually all employers to provide contraception coverage to employees. Catholics in the business world, who seek to uphold the dignity of their employees, will be mandated to provide drugs that impede fertility, and in some cases, cause abortion.
Because the religious exemption is so narrowly interpreted, the law does not allow most Catholic institutions to be exempted and it contains no real conscience protection for those who have moral objections to participating in or paying for such plans and procedures.
If the Catholic Church is forced to comply with this rule it will be forced to compromise the core principles of its Christian identity. This is a grave violation of religious liberty and is unacceptable. We can fight this injustice.
Until Sept. 30 the Department of Health and Human Services is conducting a “listening period” on its new rules. By contacting them you can give vital witness to the Gospel. It is imperative that Catholics witness to truth. Please join me in asking HHS to respect human dignity and religious freedom.
If this rule is implemented there could be persecution ahead for Catholic institutions. However, as St. Paul proclaimed, “to die in Christ is to live.” We Catholics can use this unjust law as an opportunity for evangelization.
It is not enough merely to express opposition to laws that violate our religious liberty. Rather, like Bishop Van Thuan, we must engage in Christian leadership in the face of injustice.
In opposing unjust laws we can positively articulate the truth we have been given. In the weeks and months to come, we can witness to the Catholic belief that sexual relations are a beautiful and integral part of marriage, and that contraceptives rob them of their true and full meaning.
Earlier this month, Regis University confirmed that it would not comply with a state law requiring it to provide contraceptive coverage in its student health plan. The university could now face a costly legal battle, limitations on its ministry and significant opposition from those who oppose the Church’s teaching on contraception.
Regis has seized an opportunity to lead—to express what we as Catholics believe and why. This is what a Catholic institution of higher learning should do. This opportunity is a great grace and I commend the university’s witness.
Seize the opportunity to oppose the unjust HHS rules. Imitate the courage of Bishop Van Thuan. Commit to Christian leadership. Let’s join together in witnessing to the truth of the Gospel and the dignity of the human person.
Bishop James D. Conley is apostolic administrator of the Denver Archdiocese.
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