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The irresistible force of modern ‘rights’ meets the immovable object of the Catholic Church

President Obama’s contraception mandate has opened a new front in the culture war

By on Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Obama Birth Control

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.

  • Lazarus

    1) If employers do not offer a plan, then there is a financial penalty levied on the institution. 

    2) There’s an extensive discussion between a Catholic postgraduate and an atheist philosopher on the general issues here: (there are another two parts which are linked at the end of the article). Although I wouldn’t agree with everything that Mary (the Catholic) says, she does clearly explain why this is an issue that even very liberal Catholics in the US have regard as a threat to religious liberty.

    3) Perhaps it would be helpful to take a ‘helicopter’ view of the question. Putting aside Catholic understandings of morality, it’s not unreasonable to see all humans as facing the task of balancing goods and harms: there are very few actions that don’t have moral costs as well as moral gains. Now in the case of this healthcare question, I can understand why, from a non-Catholic point of view, you might conclude that the benefit of increased health provision would outweigh the cost in religious liberty. (I think there is a good argument -even in secular terms- against this, but I could understand why someone might hold this position.) But what I really don’t understand is how it could be argued that there is no cost in terms of religious liberty: if someone is being compelled to act, and any acquaintance with Catholic theology would show that the action has always been considered within that theology to one of grave sin, how could this not be a cost in terms of religious liberty (whatever else might be said in favour of it)? (I’ve given a general (non-Catholic) argument in favour of conscientious objection here

    4) On the issue of the extent of moral culpability, it’s impossible to give a formula for working this out! Certainly, someone who commits a wrong action under duress is less culpable, in general, than someone who does it freely. Again, in general, someone who aids indirectly a sin is less culpable than someone who engages in it directly. On the other hand, someone with a clear understanding of Catholic moral theology, with a responsibility for teaching the young and a public profile who encouraged others to engage in a sin (eg a college President etc) might well be more culpable than (say) a young Catholic with little idea of morality who engaged in contraception. But, in essence, Catholic institutions have been given a very clear decision: they know it’s wrong; their legitimate authorities (bishops etc) have told them it is wrong; they have plenty of time to consider their reaction. What they should do in the event of no change in the law is difficult: but it is a serious decision and one for which they should be very conscious that they will have to justify in the face of God. 

  • guest

    Because Constitutional guarantees of religious liberty in the Bill of Rights legally apply to infringement specifically by the government, not generally to non-government individuals or groups.

  • guest

    Neither is it a Constitutional right for an employee (generally) to claim the First Amendment against an employer rather than the government.  The Bill of Rights protects specifically against government interference.  

    In the case where an employer receives federal funds, the issue is weighing whether government requirements infringe on the rights of a religious institution to refrain from an act considered morally objectionable.  In this instance, it seems clear, since even providing the contraceptive option is considered clearly morally objectionable.  Government action infringes on a very clear and clearly stated religious belief, whether or not arguments can be made against that objection.  

    Against this would be the question of whether the organization receiving federal funds is somehow abridging freedom of religion of individuals through its refusal of complicity in what it sees as wrong behavior. But, here, the individual remains free to procure services elsewhere; whether or not that is inconvenient or somewhat more expensive, it does mean less significant government coercion, if any.  

    This would probably be 7-2 in the opposite direction as mentioned above, especially given existing legal precedent.

    The Constitution is not a set of “secular rights.”  It is a set of limitations on government that protect recognized rights that, at the time of its formulation, were justified by natural law arguments.