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Catholic Social Thought and the HHS Mandate Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 17 February 2012

As almost everyone on earth now knows, Professor Obama has offered his “compromise” to the HHS regulations that require that all employers, including most religious employers, that provide health insurance to their employees must include coverage of contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients free of charge.

It was a faux compromise. The insurance company, not the employer, must inform the employee that these options exist, while the insurance company is required to provide these services “free of charge.” But, as one group of scholars stated, “it does not matter who explains the terms of the policy purchased by the religiously affiliated or observant employer. What matters is what services the policy covers.” And because there’s no free lunch, the insurance company’s cost undoubtedly will be passed on to the employer.

Nothing of substance has changed. The religious employer whose conscience forbids him to materially cooperate with acts he believes are intrinsically evil must purchase employees health insurance that includes services it believes are intrinsically evil.

Nevertheless, several individuals and groups have applauded this “compromise.” Washington Post writer E. J. Dionne, for instance, wrote a thoughtful column in support of the president. The Catholic Health Association initially praised the President, but now seems to be backpedaling a bit, while Catholics United offers unwavering support.

Although each claims to be committed to Catholic Social Thought (CST), when one reads the relevant encyclicals, what emerges is not a theological brief for the HHS mandate and its faux compromise, but rather, something quite hostile to it.

         Pope Paul VI

In Humanae Vitae (1968), for instance, Pope Paul VI asks the “rulers of nations” not to “tolerate any legislation which would introduce into the family those practices which are opposed to the natural law of God.” Consequently, if the Church teaches that the state ought not to voluntarily introduce these practices to the wider public, it stands to reason that it is far worse for the state to coerce a Catholic employer or Church organization to introduce these practices to its employees.

If, however, a Catholic or Catholic organization were to acquiesce in this state coercion, it would not only be materially cooperating with evil, but it would cause scandal, for it would by its actions be teaching that it rejects Humanae Vitae’s command that “careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law.”

Catholics United is correct that Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891), is “generally regarded as the inaugural document of the Catholic social tradition.” But the HHS mandate that Catholics United supports is inconsistent with the principles found in that encyclical.

In order to appreciate this, consider this question: Do religious-based organizations, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, and Catholic-owned businesses, have the right under the HHS mandate either to sign an agreement with an insurance company or self-insure so that the policies they offer to their employees do not include contraception, abortion, sterilization, etc.?

The answer is “no” (except for narrowly defined “houses of worship”). HHS is in effect coercing the Church and some of its members to use their assets for the purpose of introducing into the lives of their employees and their families “those practices which are opposed to the natural law of God,” as Humanae Vitae puts it.

            Pope Leo XIII

On the matter of the state conscripting the assets of the Church and its members for such purposes, Rerum Novarum lays down clear principles:

[E]very precaution should be taken not to violate the rights of individuals and not to impose unreasonable regulations under pretense of public benefit. For laws only bind when they are in accordance with right reason, and, hence, with the eternal law of God. . . .And here we are reminded of the confraternities, societies, and religious orders which have arisen by the Church's authority and the piety of Christian men. . . .In their religious aspect they claim rightly to be responsible to the Church alone. The rulers of the State accordingly have no rights over them, nor can they claim any share in their control; on the contrary, it is the duty of the State to respect and cherish them, and, if need be, to defend them from attack.
Pope Leo laments that in his own time “a very different course has been followed”:
In many places, the State authorities have laid violent hands on these communities, and committed manifold injustice against them; it has placed them under control of the civil law, taken away their rights as corporate bodies, and despoiled them of their property, in such property the Church had her rights, each member of the body had his or her rights, and there were also the rights of those who had founded or endowed these communities for a definite purpose, and, furthermore, of those for whose benefit and assistance they had their being.

Thus, Leo asserts that the Church “cannot refrain from complaining of such spoliation as unjust and fraught with evil results; and with all the more reason do We complain because, at the very time when the law proclaims that association is free to all, We see that Catholic societies, however peaceful and useful, are hampered in every way, whereas the utmost liberty is conceded to individuals whose purposes are at once hurtful to religion and dangerous to the commonwealth.”

Catholic Social Thought, it seems, is as much about speaking truth to power as it is about not letting those in and close to power speak for truth.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. Among his many books is Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (InterVarsity Press, 2010)
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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Gian, February 17, 2012
"The religious employer whose conscience forbids him to materially cooperate with acts he believes are intrinsically evil must purchase employees health insurance that includes services it believes are intrinsically evil."

What is the word "religious" doing here?. Do non-religious people have no consciences?
If some peculiar people, believe that it violates their consciences to support AIDS treatment, then should their consciences be respected too?

Is it a question of freedom of consciences, whatever be the content of those consciences, or the question of rational right and rational wrong?
written by Brian English, February 17, 2012
"What is the word "religious" doing here?."

Well, since the article (which is an excellent one) is discussing Catholic Social Thought, don't you think it would be a little strange if it wasn't approaching the HHS mandate from a religious persepctive. Catholicism is a religion.

written by Kent, February 17, 2012
Gian has a point. If we let just anyone's conscience, religious or not, stand in the way of mandating that he do something, then anarchy reigns. Suddenly I feel my conscience telling me that my paying taxes is intrinsically wrong, it's the government stealing from me (cf. Walter Williams); so, they should let April 15 come and go in my case. Not! At the intersection of religion and public policy, public policy takes over. The right to religious freedom means the totally unabridged right to practice one's religion in a way that does not conflict with public policy and law. In cases where one's religion does so conflict, that right is no longer relevant. If policy isn't given the final say and we take it upon ourselves to allow for exemptions, there just isn't any way to draw acceptable lines delineating which religious consciences we respect and which we trample on: Catholics, you're off the hook regarding insurance, but Muslims, you can't wear head scarves (in France), KKK, you definitely have to allow intermingling in your businesses, and Mormons, you have to have marriages only of the sort the state deems acceptable -- you latter groups have morals we just can't abide, your religion should have been less odd and more in line with the dominant mores of the culture you inhabit, for then you might have earned an exemption.
written by Ed Mechmann, February 18, 2012
The HHS mandate (indeed the entire health care bill) also violates another aspect of Catholic social teaching -- subsidiarity. One of the primary concepts of subsidiarity is the activity of intermediary institutions such as Churches, private associations, etc. This bill, and the HHS mandate, strips all that away and leaves the individual in direct relationship with the federal government, without any protection from or recourse to intermediary institutions.
written by Francis J. Beckwith, February 18, 2012
Kent writes: "If we let just anyone's conscience, religious or not, stand in the way of mandating that he do something, then anarchy reigns."

That, of course, is off topic, since my essay concerns whether those CST apologists who support the HHS mandate are applying CST in this instance.

The problem, however, with your claim is that the argument for religious liberty on this particular issue is not at such a high level of abstraction. It concerns a specific practice--contraceptive use--and whether the state's interest in protecting this practice may be accomplished just as cheaply and well if religious groups were not burdened. The practice itself touches on a moral question--the proper use of our sexual powers--one over which citizens, from differing moral traditions, vary widely. This is why in Griswold v. Ct. the Supreme Court justified its opinion by appealing to the sanctity of the marital bed and the relationship of that couple to judgments that are peculiar to them and their beliefs. That is, the Court tethers its opinion on the right to contraceptive use on those very beliefs that are "religious," since they touch on the meaning of the human person and the purpose of our sexual powers. That is, contraceptive use is tied to conscience. For if it weren't, the state could conceivably require citizens to use it as in the same way that it requires polio vaccinations, all for the good of "public health." And this leads me to a reductio that one can apply to your position.

To borrow from your language, one could say: If we let just the state mandate whatever it wants on matters of health while totally disregarding conscience, then tyranny reigns. If the state can conscript the Church's assets to pay for policies that offer contraception on their menus, then why can't the sate conscript the Church's assets to pay for policies that offer abortions on their menus. Or if the Church is self-insured, why can't the state force the Church to pay for them directly and upon the request of any employee who wants want? And why can't the state mandate, in the name of saving "health care costs" (one of the justifications of the HHS mandate), that no insurance company is required to pay for the delivery of a woman's child if it is her third, though she is free to fund it herself out of pocket and if she wants to have an abortion the state will make sure that her Catholic employer must pay for the bill? It is neutral, generally applicable and is justified by "health." In that case, why can't the state mandate that such a woman (and the man who sired her child) pay the government a $5000 fine for every child after her third, with the always "free" option of abortion? And why can't the government mandate that a woman carrying a Down Syndrome child be offered a free abortion or pay a heft fine, since such children "drain health costs"? And why can't the government actually require a woman to be sterilized after the 7th child, precisely on those grounds? Buck v. Bell, which is still good law and used in Roe v. Wade to support that opinion, says such a conscription is no different than mandatory vaccinations and military conscriptions. If you we can require that young men sacrifice their bodies for the common body, why can't we require women sacrifice their ovaries for the common good?

It is amazing the number of things one is willing to tolerate in order to avoid "anarchy."

written by Floyd Alsbach, February 18, 2012
Kent said; "Not! At the intersection of religion and public policy, public policy takes over." Are you really saying that public policy trumps the first amendment?
written by Don Martin, February 20, 2012
In 1984, George Orwell posited a time when the state had absorbed society, and the holding of a contrary view was a thought crime. The administration's "compromise" was a unilateral edict. The use of the word compromise comes right out of the Ministry of Truth.

The church serves a purpose here. It will rally the Obama base because it is plausible enemy. It is perceived as strong, yet it is politically weak, weak enough to be beaten by the secular elite media. It serves a purpose as a bugbear and bete noire. Those red hatted reactionaries will never know what him. They will bring "us" together.

The Sibelius edict was a political ploy intended as a reveille for radicals. The watchword will be contraception and religious freedom can go to that mythical place called hell. Machiavelli lives.

I prefer Burke. If people expect us to love our country, our country ought to be loveable. If the government can force Catholic institutions to subsidize contraception, sterilizations and provision of abortion inducing drugs then I detect a whiff of Weimar in the air, that time before the brown shirts when the killing was done by physicians and technicians in immaculate medical dress, antiseptically and discreetly and with a rationale strangely appropriate to the present day, the elimination of life unworthy of life
written by kent, February 28, 2012
Tyranny already reigns, as discussed below.

We allow consciences clauses and exemptions when doing so has little impact on the overall functioning of the state or when a given appeal to conscience is so drastically out of step with the dominant values of the culture that it has difficulty demanding our respect when it stands in the way of a value with widespread public support that opposes it. As to the first, an Amish person can opt out of going to the front lines because, well, who will care if a handful of Amish work in factories instead? If half the country were Amish, it's not that we'd compel them to fight; it's that we would not go to war in the first place. Protecting the conscience of religious people is nice -- it really is considered a value to be upheld a priori -- but if on society's agenda there are big fish to fry the frying of which requires compelling a few people to act against their consciences, those people will end up being compelled, as a matter of course, as long as they lack great numbers, great influence, great prestige and the like. If the number of people who find birth control morally objectionable were much greater than 1% or so, then no such compulsion would be being foisted on us as it is; something which a small minority views as immoral has in general come to be seen as a normal component of "women's health." (In any event, the conscience of the nation on this question will manifest itself in November.) If the morality of the various and sundry mandates you listed were matters of public consensus to the extent that contraception is, there would in fact be no difference between those cases and it. (In all the possible worlds where those things are mandated, one would be thought as weird for thinking those things grave infringements as anti-contraception people are for thinking the mandate to provide contraception is a grave infringement. In other words, in those possible worlds those things wouldn't sound as repugnant as they do when read from the perspective of dominant American sensibilities circa 2012.) With contraception, things have gotten to the point that thinking it immoral is weird (whether it is or is not immoral). This is how democracy works: the weird views and practices are pushed to the fringe and the rights ostensibly attached to them are trumped by policies stemming from the dominant cultural values that tend against them. For better or worse, being against contraception has gradually taken on the character of oddness belonging to religiously-based racism and other views that appear simply foreign in modern society. I'm merely giving the criterion that is in practice used to distinguish those cases in which conscience is respected from those in which it is not in a democratic society. The ever shifting tide of public opinion is what really determines when respect will be given and when it will not be.

It's true that there is tyranny. In a democracy there is inevitably a tyranny of the majority, whose values are gradually enshrined in law, and subsequently dethroned.

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