Twenty-first Century Recusants

Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate evokes bitter memories of past persecution.

The Obama administration’s recent decision to require Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives through their health care plans has been met with firm resistance from Catholic leaders, and incredulity even from the president’s own supporters, who warn that the administration is walking into a political minefield.  

“One of Barack Obama’s great attractions as a presidential candidate was his sensitivity to the feelings and intellectual concerns of religious believers,” writes the Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne. “That is why it is so remarkable that he utterly botched the admittedly difficult question of how contraceptive services should be treated under the new health care law.”  The president “threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus,” he adds.

The president’s allies in the press, who share his socially liberal love of all things contraceptive, have good reason to be concerned about the administration’s Quixotic jab at the Catholic Church. The president has managed to offend the religious sensibilities of the largest voting bloc in the United States, and is evoking bitter memories of historic persecution in the process.

Intentionally or not, the administration’s policy smacks of the methods established by England’s Queen Elizabeth against Catholic “recusants,” who refused to participate in the worship services of the Anglican Church during the late 16th century. Although Elizabeth’s regime, and those that followed for the next two hundred years, did not provide a penalty for Catholic belief as such, they found a simple and devastating way to coerce Catholics to violate their consciences: the recusancy fine, which was levied against those who absented themselves from Sunday Anglican worship or failed to receive communion once a year. 

The fine, which began as a few shillings, was eventually raised to 20 pounds a month, a devastating penalty that few could afford.  After being impoverished by such levies, family members would be thrown in jail for failing to pay, and sometimes expelled from the country. Only the wealthiest Catholic families, generally of the aristocracy, could avoid persecution by paying the fines and maintaining a Catholic existence in the privacy and secrecy of their estates.

Although it is far removed from the severity of Britain’s old recusancy measures, Obama’s policy bears an uncomfortable similarity to them. Catholics will not be directly forced to repudiate their moral principles, but some of their most important institutions will be fined handsomely for refusing to do so. For each employee not provided with contraceptive insurance coverage, a Catholic university, charity, or other institution will be required to pay the government $2,000 annually.

As under the old recusancy system, some larger and wealthier institutions might be able to sustain the financial burdens, but smaller ones will simply go bankrupt and be forced to fold, or will publicly violate their religious beliefs to remain in existence.  The outcome will be painfully similar to that of other policies that impose morally offensive requirements on Catholics, such as requiring adoption agencies to give children to homosexuals.  As a result of such measures, Catholic agencies in some states have been forced to close or have renounced their Catholic identity to continue operating. 

However, the Obama administration’s decision to impose the contraceptive mandate on Catholic institutions throughout the nation, takes the offense to a breathtaking new level. What is the president thinking?

Is he venting his fury over the Catholic bishops’ opposition to his health care plan with a vengeful blow against a group that has historically voted Democrat in national elections?  If so, he is likely to hurt himself in a cheap attempt at political payback.  Is he counting on the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities USA to continue to support him in opposition to the bishops, as they did over abortion coverage? If that is his hope, it is being dashed before his eyes: both groups are balking, and the CHA says it feels “jolted.”

American Catholics are famous for their political divisions, but the Obama administration’s decision to strike so directly and deeply at the moral conscience of the Church could mark 2012 as a turning point for the Catholic Church in electoral politics.  If President Obama manages to unite American Catholics in defense of their Church, he will have achieved something that has so far eluded the efforts of Catholics themselves, and could have lasting implications for the future of the Democratic Party.

Matthew Cullinan Hoffman is a Catholic journalist living in Mexico City. His award-winning articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, London Sunday Times, Miami Herald, Catholic World Report,, La Prensa of Nicaragua, and many other publications.

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About Matthew Cullinan Hoffman 27 Articles
Matthew Cullinan Hoffman is a Catholic essayist and journalist, and the author and translator of The Book of Gomorrah and St. Peter Damian's Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption (2015). His award-winning articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, London Sunday Times, Catholic World Report, LifeSite News, Crisis, the National Catholic Register, and many other publications. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a focus on Thomism.