Forum: The Supreme Court and the Passion of Christ

«Had Pilate done the right thing, he would have steered clear of taking sides in a religious, theological dispute»

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This piece is contributed by Fr. Frank Pavone, the National Director of Priests for Life 
Between the two days of the Church’s liturgical year when the account of our Lord’s Passion is the Gospel reading — that is, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday — a Supreme Court case is being heard this year that in a dramatic way replays some of the dynamics of that Passion account.
I speak of the case of Priests for Life vs. HHS, which is one of seven consolidated cases being argued in the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday of Holy Week. In these consolidated cases, plaintiffs include bishops and priests, religious brothers and sisters, Catholic lay men and women along with their ministries, and Christians of other denominations as well.
What is the argument all about? Despite all the complexities in the thousands of pages of detail in this case, it’s really very simple: The government is prevented by law from punishing a believer for practicing his or her faith. And yet the plaintiffs are being forced to choose between following their faith and following the law when it comes to how they offer health insurance to their employees.
In short, the government is trying to use the health insurance plans of groups like Priests for Life as a vehicle for providing abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives, sterilization, and related counseling.
We are saying that this violates our faith, and the government is saying that our objection isn’t sufficient to stop them from forcing us to do it anyway.
In the creed, and in the details of the Passion narrative, we see that Jesus was «crucified under Pontius Pilate.» The crucifixion could not take place without the permission of the duly appointed governmental authority of Roman Judea. Sure, the Jewish religious leaders wanted to get rid of Jesus, but they had to use the authority of the state to make it happen.
Pilate could not identify what capital crime Jesus was guilty of. The dispute was over theological doctrine. Yet torn between his own conscience and the pressure of the crowds, he exercised the authority of the state to deliver him to death.
Had Pilate done the right thing, he would have steered clear of taking sides in a religious, theological dispute. Jesus claimed to be God, and the Jewish leaders claimed he was blaspheming. Pilate should have said that the Roman authority — and in particular, the authority to inflict punishment — was not competent to decide such matters.
And so it is in the case of Priests for Life vs. HHS and the other cases consolidated with it. All of us — followers of Christ twenty centuries after his path crossed that of Pilate — are asserting a religious belief: What the government is asking us to do regarding our health insurance policies violates our faith. It makes us complicit in wrongdoing, and forces us to authorize our insurance companies to provide abortion-inducing drugs, and other objectionable ‘services,’ to our own employees through our own health insurance plans. We claim the religious freedom to avoid that complicity and to offer health insurance in a way that corresponds to the demands of our faith.
And the government, instead of recognizing that it has neither the role nor the competence to judge the validity of our religious belief, is instead making a judgment, rejecting that belief, and declaring itself ready to punish us for practicing it.
They are actually trying to tell us we are not complicit in wrongdoing when we sign the forms they are asking us to sign. But as the Supreme Court has already correctly stated in its Hobby Lobby decision regarding the very same HHS mandate, “it is not for [this Court] to say that [petitioners’] religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial.» (Hobby Lobby, 134 S. Ct., at 2779).
Hopefully the Justices who are Catholic will hear attentively the reading of the Passion this week. Perhaps some insight will come to them, that their role is neither to impose nor to punish belief, but to protect it.
For information on the Priests for Life case and related cases, see For a prayer campaign for victory in this case and the reversal of the HHS mandate, see

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