The High Cost of Conscience

By Tom Grenchik

February 03, 2012

At the end of the liturgical year, the Mass readings tell dramatic stories from the Books of Maccabees of simple folks standing courageously for their faith in the face of torture and death. Their exemplary witness can strengthen us as we defend our conscience rights and religious liberty which are under attack today.

In second century B.C., a conquering king was intent on suppressing Judaism in Palestine. He issued a decree that his whole kingdom should all be one people, each abandoning his particular customs and religious laws and observances. Whoever refused to comply would be killed. Though large numbers did comply, we’re told that many in Israel “preferred to die rather than be defiled with unclean food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. Terrible affliction was upon Israel” (1 Maccabees 1:63).

The king sent inspectors to root out anyone suspected of following Jewish law. Some enforcers used verbal pressure (“everyone else is doing it”). Others offered riches and powerful positions to community leaders who might cave in. Most relied on torture or massacre.

Eleazar, a prominent Jewish leader, was so respected by his torturers that they privately offered him a chance to fake his obedience to the king. He could bring his own meat and pretend to be eating the forbidden pork. That way he could publicly please the king, technically please God, and fake it for everyone else, leading them to violate their consciences. Eleazar refused and was beaten to death.

A mother and her seven sons also refused to comply. After being severely tortured, each was offered a choice: comply with the king’s mandate, or be dismembered and fried. The mom, killed last, boldly encouraged each son to remain steadfast and not compromise his faith.

What inspired such martyrs to follow the tenets of their faith, when eating a bite of pork could have prevented dreadful suffering and likely would have been widely supported as best for the common good? They knew in their hearts that no king or government agency could force them to compromise their faith.

Similar stories of heroes killed for refusing to violate their conscience by following unjust decrees are found throughout history and cultures. Yet their courageous resistance to violations of faith and conscience often surprises leaders who impose such unjust laws.

On January 20, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that nearly all health plans will be forced to cover drugs and procedures even if this violates the consciences of those who offer, sponsor or purchase the plan. As many have noted, this is not just about access to contraception, abortifacients, or sterilization. The mandate is about forcing religious groups or individuals, against their beliefs, to pay for or provide these things under threat of sizeable penalties. For Eleazar, too, it was not just about eating a little pork. It was about being forced to act against his beliefs and lead others astray.

The backlash against HHS’s contraception and sterilization mandate should surprise no one. People of conscience are rising up against this unjust and unconstitutional mandate. Folks from all walks of life have spoken out. Facebook groups are organizing “Stand with the Bishops” campaigns. Others are participating in “Days of Fasting and Prayer” for their bishops. Still others are launching online “Rosary Campaigns for Religious Freedom,” and so on. All of these efforts are encouraging. At the Catholic bishops’ conference webpage you can learn more about this issue and take action to defend conscience rights.

Defending the right of conscience comes at a high cost; but the cost of failing to do so is incalculable.

It is cause for great hope that the Catholic community understands the threat, is united in opposition, and is swiftly mobilizing in parishes and dioceses, in hospitals and academic institutions, and nationally under the leadership of our bishops to demand that the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment be upheld. If we do not stand and be counted now, what will be the next moral challenge forced upon people of faith? Who will be the next group targeted?


Tom Grenchik is Executive Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Go to to learn more about the bishops’ activities on conscience protection.