President Obama's contraception mandate has opened a new front in the culture war
On January 27 this year, I blogged about the furore in the US caused by the announcement of the Department of Health and Human Services that it will become mandatory for all employers to provide their employees with health insurance policies for contraceptive services, including sterilization and abortifacient drugs. In effect, this would mean that hundreds of religious colleges, hospitals, schools and charities would now be required to provide insurance coverage for their employees for practices they believe to be wrong and contrary to their beliefs.
This has predictably led to determined opposition from religious institutions, including Catholics ones. In her blog for May 21, Sheila Liaugminas, a US political commentator, says that 43 Catholic institutions have now joined a dozen law suits against the Obama administration for its so-called “contraceptive mandate” and are challenging the constitutional legality of the new requirement.
Among them are Notre Dame University, the Archdiocese of New York and the Catholic University of America. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York and President of the US Bishops’ Conference, has issued this statement: “We have tried negotiation with the Administration and legislation with the Congress…but there’s still no fix. Time is running out and our valuable ministries and fundamental rights hang in the balance, so we have to resort to the courts now…We applaud this courageous action by so many individual dioceses, charities, hospitals and schools across the nation…It is also a compelling display of the unity of the Church in defence of religious liberty.”
Interestingly, the mandate has managed that rare thing: to unite liberal and orthodox groups within the Church. Fr John Jenkins, the President of Notre Dame, was at pains to explain that their law suit was not against a woman’s right to use contraception: “Many of our faculty, staff and students – both Catholic and non-Catholic – have made conscientious decisions to use contraceptives” he said, adding that “As we assert the right to follow our conscience, we respect their right to follow theirs. And we believe that, if the Government wishes to provide such services, means are available that do not compel religious organisations to serve as its agents.”
Fr Terence Henry TOR, President of Franciscan University, stated that “the Obama administration’s mandate is a grave threat to our ability to carry out [our] mission. It makes it impossible for us to operate freely s a Catholic institution without overbearing and invasive governmental interference.” And the Archdiocese of Washington made it clear that the law suit “is about an unprecedented attack by the federal government on one of America’s most precious freedoms: the freedom to practise one’s religion without government interference.” It emphasised that “It is not about whether people have access to certain services; it is about whether the Government may force religious institutions and individuals to facilitate and fund services which violate their religious beliefs.”
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary to the Department of Health and Human Services, who is pushing forward the mandate, describes herself as a Catholic. In reality, she is “modern woman”, just as Barack Obama himself is “modern man” – part of a powerful cohort today, largely in the West, who has no fixed principles of any kind, except for the fixed principle that all morality is simply a matter of individual rights and choices; and that these rights must trump all other rights, especially those hallowed by traditional religious beliefs. For such people, truth is simply a matter of one’s personal feelings and preferences; and “Christianity”, as they see it (and as Obama has invoked it recently), can be reinterpreted and moulded to accommodate whatever flawed and a-historical zeitgeist happens to be dominant.
It will be interesting to see what happens in this case, when the irresistible force of modern, democratic “rights” meets the immovable object of the Catholic Church.