Slavery to the State and Religious Freedom: A Mennonite Perspective
The recent HHS mandate requiring that every health insurance plan cover contraceptives has put Catholic institutions in an awkward situation. As Catholics discuss the best way to approach this issue, we here at Vox Nova thought that it would be interesting to hear from another Christian perspective. Christians of the Anabaptist tradition have been strong advocates of the separation of Church and State since long before it was cool. As such, they have a history of both reflection and praxis in situations where Christian conscience and the law of the land collide. Ryan Klassen is a Mennonite theologian and regular participant here at Vox Nova. We are pleased to offer you his thoughts on this question as Catholics continue to consider the best way forward in this new situation.
I have watched with keen interest (and the occasional comment) the debate on the relationship between the contraception mandate in the HHS rules for insurance coverage and religious freedom in both the broader society and Vox Nova. Perhaps now that the aftermath of the announcement has had time to settle, we can look more broadly at the issue of religious freedom itself. I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons the Roman Catholic Church is having such a difficult time with the issue of contraception coverage is the short history the Roman Catholic Church has with the doctrine of religious liberty, freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state. Perhaps the 47 years since Dignitatis Humanae is not quite enough time to fully integrate these elements within thousands of years of doctrine and practice that preceded it. At least, that’s what it looks like to an outsider looking (sometimes longingly) in.
Before we get too far, perhaps I should introduce myself. My name is Ryan Klassen. I am a Mennonite theologian, ordained minister and occasional combox participant here at Vox Nova. Thus I come to this issue as an outsider looking in, although I add “sometimes longingly” because I, like many before me (including Vox Nova’s own Julia Smucker), am considering whether being a faithful Mennonite requires a return to Rome. For me it might, but I just haven’t found the way yet.
For those of you who are unaware, Anabaptist-Mennonites have a long history with religious liberty, freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state. They have been essential elements in our theological tradition since our origins in the early 16th century. One of the first Anabaptist theologians, Balthasar Hubmaier, wrote extensively on religious liberty and freedom of conscience.[i] Of course, one of the problems with calling for the separation of church and state in the 16th century was that the church and state were not particularly separate at the time. Thus Anabaptists were considered not only heretics but insurrectionists as well. Combine this with a belief that a true gospel ethic requires a renunciation of violence even in self-defense and it’s a wonder they survived the religio-political conflict of the time.[ii]
Hubmaier’s basic point was that the Word of God and the teaching of the bishops were the appropriate means to reprove heretics. The use of violence by the church was in direct contradiction to the parable of wheat and tares, and the use of the sword by the state was to punish evildoers, not heretics or unbelievers. Salvation of souls, honour of the church and love for the truth are good intentions that become lethal errors when violence is used by the church or the church asks the state to use violence on her behalf.
Without the protection of political patronage and with the inability to protect themselves through violence, Anabaptist-Mennonites became a sectarian movement. “The Quiet in the Land” became a motto, as it was one of the ways Mennonites managed to survive. There is a pattern to Mennonite history; living quietly in fairly self-contained communities, paying what was required to avoid mandatory military service, fleeing when payment wasn’t enough to hold off persecution. In this way they moved about Europe, from Germany and Switzerland to Holland, to Russia and eventually to the United States, Canada, Mexico and South America.
In Canada (and to a lesser degree, the United States), most Mennonites have moved away from a strictly sectarian self-identity and towards a greater participation in the broader society. In many ways, this is the converse of the situation for Roman Catholics. The end of what has been essentially 1600 years of Christendom has challenged the Roman Catholic Church to rethink the relationship between church, state and society. The lack of persecution in North America and Europe has started to bring about the end of sectarianism in Mennonite churches, and has caused Mennonites to rethink their relationship with state and society, especially in terms of opposing evil outside one’s own community, albeit using only the methods allowed by the gospel (or better yet, by using the methods of the gospel). In this we have much to learn from the Roman Catholic Church.
You may ask what this narrative digression has to do with the HHS mandate and the issue of religious liberty. If you will permit, I have a story that hopefully will bring us back to the point. When Mennonites came to Canadian the later part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, one of the things they negotiated on their arrival was conscientious objector status. Since Mennonites understand renunciation of violence to be an irreplaceable element of the gospel, they could not participate in the military. When the draft was instituted in World War 2, Mennonites could appear before the draft board, receive conscientious objector status and be enlisted in labour camps for the duration of the war rather than join the military. And yet, about 50% of Mennonite men who were drafted decided to enlist. This created quite a problem, both for the self-identity of the Mennonite community and for the religious claim the community had for a conscientious objector exemption.
I see some parallels between this situation and the situation facing the Roman Catholic Church regarding contraception coverage. Mennonites claimed an exemption from compulsory military service based on religious practice. Yet in practice, half of Mennonite men accepted compulsory military service. The Roman Catholic Church is claiming an exemption from including artificial contraception coverage on employee insurance plans based on religious practice. Yet in practice, a significant percentage of Roman Catholics use artificial contraception.
The Mennonite reaction to the men who joined the military was twofold. First, those who enlisted were excommunicated. Excommunication (or the ban) has always been a key part of the Mennonite understanding of discipleship and the church.[iii] Those who claimed to be members of the church but lived in disobedience to the gospel, and refused to accept a call to repentance from the congregation, were excommunicated. Second, Mennonite churches re-evaluated the education and formation of their members. Obviously a gap had formed between Mennonite doctrine and the beliefs and practices of church members. Since this was a matter of church doctrine and practice, the church needed to make sure that the doctrine (in this case, pacifism) was inculcated once again in the lives of her members.[iv]
The danger I see in the Roman Catholic reaction to the HHS mandate is that the Roman Catholic Church is asking the government to take on what is rightfully the duty of the Church. It seems to me that the Church is trying to get an exemption from government policy to make it harder for Roman Catholics to use artificial contraception, rather than confronting the bigger issue of why so many Roman Catholics use contraception. If we want to continue with the analogy, it would be like Mennonites asking the government to impose conscientious objector status on all Mennonites so they couldn’t enlist. But that would be to abdicate the responsibility given by Christ to the church, to make the church subservient to the government.
Freedom of religion means that the church and her members are able to practice their beliefs without interference from the government (including the ability to advocate for public policy that benefits the common good – I’m not calling for privatized religion here). It also means that the church does not look to the government to enforce adherence to any religious beliefs or practices, either on adherents or on those outside the tradition. Having been on the wrong side of state intervention on behalf of other churches, Mennonites see more clearly than most the dangers of this approach.
From a Mennonite perspective, I see how providing coverage for artificial conception is an issue for Roman Catholics. However, I see this as a minor problem – one of the costs for participating in this particular society, if you will. It is similar to the war taxes Mennonites have long paid for the right to conscientious objector status. By all means, advocate for an exemption. But recognize that you may need to confront the fact that this may be an issue where you simply cannot participate in what the rest of society is doing, and find a third way. Mennonites are struggling to figure this out too, but coming out from a sectarian perspective, we must more often learn what it means to take some responsibilities for the world that we are in but not of. Roman Catholics coming from a Christendom perspective need to ask whether the changing orientation of society means there are things in which they cannot participate. Perhaps as Roman Catholics help Mennonite figure out how to contribute to the common good of society, Mennonites can help Roman Catholics find the third way when confronted with a demand from society that contradicts the demands of the gospel.
Much more significant is the issue that so many Roman Catholics use artificial contraception. The government is not forcing any Roman Catholics to use artificial contraception (which would seem to be the sinful act here). Paying for an insurance plan that covers artificial contraception itself does not look to be a sin (or if it is, then it is a sin that most are already committing and fall under the same category as use of contraception). It seems that you are faced with the same problem that the Mennonite churches in Canada were faced with in World War II. What do you do when a significant number of your members act contrary to church teaching? Who is responsible for communicating doctrine and enabling adherence?
The most significant issue is that the Roman Catholic Church seems to want to hand the responsibility given by Christ to feed his sheep over to the US government. That is what troubles me the most. If religious liberty is really the issue, then the church needs to stop being a slave to the state. There was a time when the church had priority over or responsibility for the state. That time has passed. Having religious doctrine and practice enforced by the state is not a sign of the ascendancy of the church but a sign of her slavery. If the church wants to be free, she must stop giving the state what is not due to the state and start doing what Christ commanded – feed his sheep.
[i] See Balthasar Hubmaier, “On Heretics and Those Who Burn Them,” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, trans. and ed. H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Herald Press, 1989).
[ii] As a wry aside, I would point out that even by their very existence, Anabaptist-Mennonites were able to bring about a type of reconciliation between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. At the Diet of Speyer in 1529, one thing Roman Catholics and Lutherans could agree on without compromise was that Anabaptists should be captured and executed wherever they could be found.
[iii] See The Schleitheim Confession, trans. by John H. Yoder (Herald Press, 1977). Bear in mind that the excommunication (ban) spoken of in these articles of faith was in the context of a sectarian community that was required to remain hidden to avoid persecution. Modern excommunication looks differently in the contemporary context, but the purpose is the same – to bring the person back into fellowship with the church through repentance.
[iv] The fate of excommunicated Mennonites who served in the Canadian Armed Forces during World War II upon their return was varied. Mennonite leaders were anxious not to highlight the failure of formation that led to so many Mennonites enlisting, so generally they were allowed to re-join the church once they left the military. Some churches distinguished between those who served in combatant and non-combatant roles (i.e. medic), requiring a statement of repentance for the former before reinstating them into the church.