Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Religious freedom (1)

In the US, the so-called "contraception mandate" proposed by the Obama administration has been bitterly contested by the Catholic bishops and others – such as Steve Krason of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists in his "Call to Action", and President William Fahey of Thomas More College in his "Open Letter". Requiring Catholic employers to provide (or in the revised version at least indirectly support) contraception and sterilization services in employee health insurance plans seems a clear violation of conscience. Furthermore, as Dr Fahey points out,
This mandate casts human life and pregnancy in the same category as diseases to be prevented, and it reduces the beauty and goodness of human sexuality to an individual, utilitarian, and dangerous act. If birth-control, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs are to be considered curative – as the administration desires – one must ask what is it that they 'cure' or 'prevent'? Human life itself is now placed into a category of social burden, which the government now claims the competence and authority to control and define. Such an action undermines the very purpose of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The point is that, while the US Constitution enshrines a certain separation of Church and State, this does not make it into a secular state. On the contrary, the US has traditionally been highly religious, if predominantly Protestant, in character. The separation of powers
simply means that churches or other religious groups cannot directly – that is, without the mediation of a democratic election – impose their social policies or particular way of life on non-members. On the other hand, Christians, along with Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, and others, may seek to change the law and influence government policy provided they use acceptable methods of persuasion to do so, rather than imposing their views by force.

This arrangement worked tolerably well, provided there was a broad common ground or consensus between religious and non-religious Americans about the fundamentals of human nature and civilized behaviour. It presumed a certain agreement on matters of "natural law", albeit increasingly redefined in terms of "human rights". But during the twentieth century, even as the number of "rights" asserted by individuals proliferated, mainstream intellectual views on ethics and the nature of the human person began to diverge from those of the Roman Catholic Church on marriage, abortion, and bioethics. But these are not issues that concern Catholics or Christians only (like rules on fasting or religious observance). These are matters in which the Church and the Christian tradition – not to mention other traditions – claim to speak about human nature and the truth that is common to all men. To "privatize" such matters is to attempt to falsify our religious belief and desecrate our conscience.

Patrick J. Deneen of Front Porch Republic makes a similar point, as does Margaret McCarthy of the Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research in Washington. The point at issue is not really to do with religious liberty, but with the need to resist the imposition of an ideology that pretends to neutrality while imposing on everyone a false conception of the Good. Deneen writes: "The Catholic faith is, by definition, not 'private'; it involves a conception of the human Good that in turn requires efforts to instantiate that understanding in the world. As such, Catholics represent a threat to the liberal order, which demands that people check their faith at the door..." The whole argument about liberalism is illuminated further by the the book I mentioned in a previous post: David L. Schindler's Ordering Love.

(On cooperating with evil by paying taxes see this interview with Christian Brugger. For a – to my mind – definitive analysis of the whole issue see "The Oppressive Logic of Liberal Rights" by David L. Schindler.)


  1. Your quotation of Fahey is not a point raised by the bishops and is less than peripheral in the debate. Your sanguine attitude toward the US bishops engaging in direct political lobbying is breathtaking. It has never been done before. And as Garry Wills and Angela Bonavogli have pointed out it is causing division within the Church as well as considerable damage to the reputation of an already suspect episcopacy. The issue is not one of conscience, nor is it even one of religion. It is purely political and eminently political on the part of neo-cons and the bishops. Such laws have existed in most states and in Canada, sometimes for decades. They exist in the UK in the general taxation used to support the NHS. The key to your argument seems to be in your use of what you call 'human nature', which is of course code for Curial natural law doctrine. It is clear very few women in the US buy that doctrine or it's foundations. Presenting it in code won't help.

  2. I quoted Fahey under 'others', not as representative of the Bishops' position. Many Catholics do regard this as a matter of conscience. Nor is it adequate to dismiss authoritative Catholic teaching on the grounds that 'very few women in the US' buy into it, or by labelling it 'curial'. The question of human nature and natural law is fundamental but I can't argue the case here. The issue you raise about the NHS is important but must also wait for another time. What I am saying is that democracy presumes a moral consensus, since truth cannot be determined by majority vote; democracy starts to break down in the absence of that consensus.

  3. Precisely the opposite of what Mr. Black says is true. First, some background.

    A) In the United States, private and publicly-held businesses and institutions insure in different ways. (Insurance itself is a business that provides a service – protecting against the risk of disease or accident. Clearly, if insurance paid for everything, it would no longer be “insurance” but something else entirely; in fact, insurance companies would have to go out of business).
    B) Businesses offer various benefits to their employees in terms of vacation time, life/disability/medical insurance, and others. They are under no obligation to provide medical insurance; many people buy it privately. People are free to accept or reject jobs – and often do – on the basis of benefits offered; I have turned down jobs for this kind of reason. And no one obliged to, for example, work for the small Christian colleges who do not supply free contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients, as the mandate requires.
    C) For decades, American insurance companies did not cover “lifestyle” choices that did not involve illness or preventive care, such as Viagra, contraception, etc., and very many still do not. While some states now do have a “contraception mandate”, there are several possibilities under which businesses can opt out. No such possibility exists under the Obama mandate.
    D) Americans do not have a tradition of mandates from unelected “boards” that are answerable to no one, allow for NO public comment, and which are completely free from the system of checks and balances written into the Constitution. While this is becoming common in Canada and the Europe, there are very many arguably excellent reasons why we still believe in representative government by the people, as opposed to state totalitarianism.

    Now one sees that we are talking about something completely different from the nationalized and totalized health care of Great Britain. Moving on to the issue at hand, it most certainly is precisely about conscience. Many others besides the Bishops and besides Catholics are protesting this government incursion into our liberties. Some of us hold as not simply a matter of faith but as what must be part of faith – reasoned warrant – that killing the innocent through abortifacients, to take one aspect of the mandate, is against anything that counts as morality or even protection of life by the state. To mandate the INTERNAL AFFAIRS of a religious organization by saying they MUST provide the means for things that go against their deepest beliefs is intolerable to a free people.

    As Europe and Canada sink under the culture of death, allowing the state to dictate every single thing in people’s lives, from what they say from the pulpit to what they teach in their own homes, we should be grateful that there is one place where the flame of conscience still burns. Once it is put out, once there is NOTHING AT ALL that can, or is allowed to, critique the all-powerful State, it will be too late.
    S. Quinn, USA