In August 1996, 250 people watched as Kenya’s highest Catholic cleric, Cardinal Maurice Otunga, ceremonially set fire to boxes full of condoms and copies of “safe sex” pamphlets. In the face of the rapidly-mounting African AIDS crisis, the Vatican had responded by saying basically that while HIV and AIDS might be bad, the use of contraceptives was worse — and it will always be impossible to know how many were condemned to die miserable, wasting deaths as a result.
The Catholic Church, which I was baptized into during an event I cannot be expected to remember, is rarely stranger than when it takes up arms against contraceptives. Since Pope Paul VI’s controversial 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae especially, the Catholic hierarchy has been intransigent on the subject of artificial prophylaxis, even when it is clearly the much lesser of two (granting this momentarily for the sake of argument) “evils.”
For some reason, though, it still struck me as odd to see the Catholic reaction to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ announcement last week that, as part of the Affordable Care Act, health insurance plans will be required, as of August 2013, to provide contraceptives at no cost to beneficiaries. The HHS ruling exempts religious institutions proper, such as churches, but will require religiously-affiliated schools, social outreach groups, and other organizations to provide health insurance to their employees that includes free contraceptives.
Cue the hierarchical Sturm und Drang:
On Sunday, [Atlanta-]area priests read a letter to parishioners during masses, in which [Archbishop Wilton D.] Gregory called the decision a “direct attack on our religious freedom and our First Amendment rights.”
“As a result, unless the rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled either to violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so),” Gregory said in the letter. “The administration’s sole concession was to give our institutions one year to comply.”
In this righteous rant posted Tuesday, Balloon Juice’s John Cole excoriates Ross Douthat’s response in the New York Times Sunday Review, which he quotes:
Ponder that for a moment. In effect, the Department of Health and Human Services is telling religious groups that if they don’t want to pay for practices they consider immoral, they should stick to serving their own co-religionists rather than the wider public. Sectarian self-segregation is O.K., but good Samaritanism is not. The rule suggests a preposterous scenario in which a Catholic hospital avoids paying for sterilizations and the morning-after pill by closing its doors to atheists and Muslims, and hanging out a sign saying “no Protestants need apply.”
Douthat goes on:
Critics of the administration’s policy are framing this as a religious liberty issue, and rightly so. But what’s at stake here is bigger even than religious freedom. The Obama White House’s decision is a threat to any kind of voluntary community that doesn’t share the moral sensibilities of whichever party controls the health care bureaucracy.
This construction of “religious freedom” is just weird special pleading. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that when it comes to contraception, the Church and its allies seem willing to take an “any port in a storm” approach.
The claim is that Catholic employers will be forced – forced! - to pay for medical services they believe are immoral, and will therefore be placing their immortal souls in danger of estrangement from God’s grace.
Here’s why they don’t need to worry: The decision to use or not to use contraception is the individual’s. For employers, it is their duty — not only under the new law, but also inasmuch as they desire to act justly to their employees — to provide health coverage to the people who work for them. Health insurance plans, now, must provide coverage for free-of-cost contraceptives. Employers qua employers are not obligated to make moral decisions for their employees, particularly when it comes to matters of health. Any moral culpability for the use of contraceptives — and here again, I’m only granting this so as to make the Catholic counter-argument — rests with the persons deciding to avail themselves of this coverage, not the group paying into the health insurance plan.
This much should be clear from John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical, Veritatis splendor, which, while repeating the Church’s condemnation of the use of contraceptives as morally wrong under all circumstances, also reaffirms the role of conscience in the moral actor.
Aside from all this though, a choice made under coercion is no choice at all. This has two implications: One, since employers must provide health insurance that covers contraception or face fines, they cannot be held morally culpable; and two, denying employees the opportunity to make their own moral decision when it comes to using contraceptives takes away their ability to make what the Church would consider to be a morally good choice on their own.
Put simply: being a “good Catholic” requires a person to behave in a way that comports with the teachings of the Church. It does not require a person to attempt to make civic law reflect those magisterial prohibitions, or to prevent the free exercise of conscience by people who do not share their religious convictions. Paying into employee health insurance is the right thing for employers to do. It’s up to Catholic employees to make moral decisions about contraception on their own.
What strikes me as particularly odd about this furor is that it’s coming from some of the same quarters where fits were pitched over the notion of “government bureaucrats” coming between patients and their doctors in what Douthat derisively calls “the era of Obamacare.” Implicit in this charge is the corollary idea that a patient’s dealings with her doctor should be the business of the patient and the doctor alone (a relationship the Affordable Care Act preserves, of course). Imaginary meddling bureaucrats must be kept out of the examining room, it seems — but not busybody bosses who want to make ex ante reproductive decisions for their employees.
Here again is the problem so many of us have with the stridently faithful: Not content with practicing their faith in peace, they are convinced that “religious freedom” means having the ability to make religion-based decisions for the rest of us.