Catholic Social Thought and the HHS Mandate

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 & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).