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Religious Liberty, the HHS Mandate, and the Conscience that has Escaped our Attention
Outsiders, oftentimes, can shed much needed light on controversies that have become obscure to those who have been distracted by other matters. And so, regarding the battle that the American Catholic bishops are currently waging against the HHS contraception mandate in the name of conscience and religious liberty, I believe that the English Benedictine monks of Worth Abbey in Sussex have inadvertently reminded us of the essential purpose of a religious conscience back home in the sex-wearied USA.
While surfing youtube recently, I stubbled across an enlightening series titled The Monastery, a 2005 BBC television broadcast in which five Englishmen (all non-Catholics) agreed to live a Benedictine contemplative life for forty days and nights, in a spiritual quest that was silent, guided, open, and honest. While each man benefited from some sort of conversion experience, of particular interest to us Americans is Tony, who entered the monastery as a writer for the soft-porn industry, scripting online sex chats.
Early on, Tony’s conscientious desire for the truth became apparent. He was not averse to politely challenging the monks and their Roman Catholic religious beliefs, supposedly open to a rational demonstration of their faith: “I’m not a bigot, and I want to be convinced. If they can’t convince me, I’ll just go away from this thing unconvinced. That’s my challenge to them, and in return their challenge to me.”
But as it turned out, Tony became “convinced” in quite a different manner than he had previously thought possible; via habitual silence, his conscience revealed its religious nature in a quite profound and unexpected manner. Tony eventually renounced the vacuous world of the porn industry, not because of a rational argument, nor because of a verbal injunction citing Catholic theology on human sexuality, but because in the silence that the monks had taught him to appreciate, he was able to finally encounter, at the personal level of the heart, what Christians call “God”.
Perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury said it best when, in his 2012 address concerning the New Evangelization, he reminded the bishops that “the humanity that we seek to share with the world as the fruit of Christ’s redeeming work is a contemplative [sic] humanity.” In order for the religious conscience to fulfill its primary task of bringing us to union with God (and to help us achieve the subsequent necessity of changing our lifestyle), we need instruction in both silence and contemplation–neither of which has been emphasized or taught by American bishops at large.
Catholic charities, hospitals, and universities are frequently cited as examples of why a religious conscience should be protected. But if what distinguishes the Catholic Church from a volunteer organization is her own unique mandate and ability to guide people towards intimate union with their loving God, then I wonder if American Catholic churchmen have, of late, committed the omission of Martha, and whether the overemphasis on good deeds has blurred the centrality of encountering the personal presence of God that may be encountered in stillness and silent attentiveness.
After watching all the episodes of The Monastery, I believe that the Englishman Tony can help us Americans with our own struggles over contraception, religious liberty, and conscience. Touched by the profoundly mystical, personal, and intimate nature of Christianity, and after instruction concerning silence and attentiveness, the conscience of the sex-wearied Tony could not but recognize the presence of a religious “it”, a presence that liberated him, and inspired him to change his ways, because “it” had first revealed “its” love.
As was earnestly implored long ago, “Lord, teach us how to pray.”
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