Fortnight for Freedom

Charles Honey’s column last Sunday sets the conflict between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church over the mandate to provide contraception in certain employment settings. Honey is skeptical, but he does point to the bishops report, and that is worth some comment.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, head of the bishops’ committee on religious liberty, recently told the U.S. Bishops Conference meeting in Atlanta the liberty campaign is no “walk in the park,” either. He said some reaction had been “hostile, sometimes unfair and inaccurate and sometimes derisive.”
He also said bishops’ concerns go beyond the health-care mandate. His committee’s report, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” also cited state immigration measures, such as an Alabama law prohibiting priests from baptizing or preaching to illegal immigrants.

It is an odd thing  to engage in the public square by refusing to provide either references to or third party provisions for contraception, yet such is the Church’s stance.  Odder yet,  to treat the federal mandate as an “unjust law” thereby requiring acts of conscience, similar to the unjust laws protested during the Civil Rights era — this is a case of intellectual (one is tempted to say “jesuitical”) abuse. It doesn’t fly.

Of course, it might fly were the core social teachings of the Church focused on sex. But they are not. These are emanations of emanations from the great teachings on social duty, in the Bible, in the Fathers, and in the actual practice of the Church. The voice and witness on these matters is a gift to not only others who make a Christian confession, but to society as a whole.

Bluntly, the hostility to artificial contraception is a product deriving from the manner of the Church’s reasoning, and so is something less ecumenical and more particular, even sectarian. Sectarian beliefs ought to be guarded within the bounds of a religious body, but when that body is employing non-adherents, hired on basis of secular merit — say like Mercy Health, the sole provider of healthcare in Muskegon County — then the case for making those beliefs integral to the institution seem strained.

The Bishops are right to be concerned about maintaining the integrity of their witness. they subvert it with the turn to the sectarian with their non-adherent, secular employees.

Update: The discussion continues on in an engaging dialogue with Kevin Rahe, an articulate lay Catholic.Rahe pushes back:

So in other words, the Church’s claim that it cannot participate in the promotion of contraception on the basis that contraception violates its teachings is invalid because such teaching is not a valid “religious” teaching according to the state, which has implicitly become the authoritative source of what does and does not constitute “religion.” And how does this not violate the First Amendment?
When a religious institution participates in the public sphere by providing public goods and also by employing non-adherents in this same mission there is a reasonable expectation that it do so in the context of other institutions and beliefs. There are limits. There is no automatic exemption for a religious institution or personal belief. The Amish still have to put on the reflective triangle on the back of the buggy; the Catholic university can’t claim religious reasons for breaking a labor pact (as Duquesne tried this month).

Of course there may be an action in the public sphere that may appear odd to the non-adherent, but which the institution claims as critical (e.g. the refusal to take oaths in court). That’s why we have courts — this will be a judicial decision. Sometimes these areas of conflict can be negotiated at an administrative level.

The civic judgement does not determine the institution’s belief, but whether that belief (or practice) can be sanctioned in the public sphere. I see no absolute First Amendment rule that would work here that would only sanction the rights of the institution, but not of the First Amendment rights of the employees (that is a contraceptive ban necessarily violates the religious belief of non-adherents who do not share in the religious philosophy). And again, since we have this conflict, it is necessarily one that is negotiated or ajudicated. You can’t go hiding behind the Constitution’s skirts.


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