The Rev. John Courtney Murray, whom the Rev. Jim Bacik called “the most influential Catholic intellectual theologian-philosopher in the history of the United States,” would have dissented from the U.S. bishops by supporting President Obama’s health care mandate.
That is the summary opinion of Bacik, noted theologian, author and retired Toledo priest, in a lecture given to several hundred people Tuesday evening (Aug. 20) at Lourdes University.
In the comprehensive hour-long talk, which he delivered without written notes, Bacik reviewed more than a century of Catholic teaching and gave an overall history of religious freedom in America.
The topic of religious freedom was the main focus and passion of Murray (1904-1967), a Jesuit priest who wrote the influential 1960 book “We Hold These Truths.” He and President John F. Kennedy helped pave the way for Catholics to become part of the American mainstream, according to Bacik and many other scholars.
Murray’s stature as a church and cultural leader is evident in the fact that he is the only Catholic theologian ever featured on the cover of Time magazine (Dec. 12, 1960). (Only one other theologian was ever on the Time magazine cover, he added: Reinhold Neibuhr in 1948.)
He also was a key consultant to the Second Vatican Council on its document on religious liberty.
While his credentials and his career are impeccable and impressive, Murray, of course, has not been around for the debate over Obama’s health-care mandate.
But the principles and the policies he taught show that Murray was pragmatic, understanding of politics and culture, and a strong advocate of the separation of church and state.
The church and other religious groups have a responsibility to engage in public dialogue and help shape consensus, but it is the government’s job to pass laws, Bacik said in reviewing Murray’s teachings.
The church and state are both concerned with the common good, “but they go about it different ways,” Bacik said.
“The church is a spiritual community. It can’t make laws. It ought not to be trying to create Christendom again,” Bacik said. “It is trying to appeal to people through the spiritual things, through virtue, through the power of the gospel translated into language that the people can understand.”
Murray often called the first two clauses of the First Amendment – that the government shall not establish a religion or impede the free exercise of religion – as “articles of peace,” said Bacik, 76, who retired last year.
Murray taught that there will never be unanimity in a diverse, pluralistic nation, so people should seek to build a consensus and find ways to live in peace and harmony.
“For him, the First Amendment was not an ideology, it was a pragmatic solution to a problem,” Bacik said.
Murray also taught that government cannot legislate morality, and Bacik cited Prohibition as an example.
“Why didn’t Prohibition laws work? Because you didn’t have a consensus around it,” he said. “You had a whole bunch of Catholics who didn’t like this idea of not being allowed to drink alcohol – 25 percent of the country.”
The civil rights movement, on the other hand, succeeded because it did have the force of public consensus behind it, shaped in part by influential leaders including clergy.
Murray would have strongly favored the U.S. bishops’ involvement in public debate over the health care plan in seeking to forge a consensus. That is one of the church’s responsibilities.
“Again I say, John Courtney Murray would have said, ‘Go to it, go to it,’” Bacik said.
The Obama health care plan’s requirement that employers provide contraceptive services, which the Catholic Church considers immoral, to workers initially generated strong, nearly united opposition from American Catholics.
The government, notably Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is Catholic, listened and offered an accommodation in February 2012 that exempted groups opposed to contraceptives, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, from directly providing contraceptive services, but requiring that coverage be available to employees through insurance providers.
This accommodation divided the Catholic consensus, Bacik noted, with Sister Carol Keehan and the Catholic Health Association among those supporting the plan, while U.S. bishops continued to oppose it.
Bacik said claims that the mandate imperils religious freedom in America, as the bishops assert, appear “overblown” to many observers.
He said the Catholic Church “has thrived” in America, while people in other nations are being persecuted for their beliefs, including Coptic churches being burned in Egypt and Chinese ministers being throw into prison for preaching the gospel.
“I hope this doesn’t sound too flip or glib – what we’ve really got to do is get the underground church in China and the Copts in Egypt to pray for us in the United States suffering from this horrible lack of religious freedom we have,” Bacik said, adding: “Too glib.”
Many Americans, including Catholics, see the federal health care mandate as protecting women’s rights, especially poor women who otherwise could not afford contraceptive services.
Bacik said U.S. bishops have not addressed the rights issue, and he recalled impassioned arguments by women speaking at a church forum who “were not wanting clerics who are not married, all males, telling them what to do with their own health care.”
Another contributing factor to the public debate is that health care will be extended to 32 million people who otherwise would not have it — a key reason why U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D. Toledo), also a Catholic, voted for the bill, according to Bacik.
With Catholic opinion divided, the health care mandate has moved forward despite the bishops’ opposition and is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2014.
Bacik said that with the exemption for Catholic employers, he believes Murray would approve.
“If you look at the his body of work as a whole, and the way he understands how the political process works, and being a realist as he is that you can’t legislate morality and you have to look for compromises and accommodations, I would think he would laud the administration for their accommodation,” he said.
The Rev. Jim Bacik’s lecture on John Courtney Murray was filmed by WGTE-TV and eventually will be available on its “Knowledge Stream” website.