Policy, Not Liberty

For a brief moment, Catholics on all sides were united in defense of the freedom of the Catholic Church to define for itself what it means to be Catholic in the United States. They came together to defend the church’s institutions from morally objectionable, potentially crippling burdens imposed by the Obama administration under the Affordable Care Act. Catholic journalists, like E. J. Dionne and Mark Shields, and politicians, like Tim Kaine and Robert P. Casey Jr., joined the U.S. bishops in demanding that the administration grant a broad exemption for religiously affiliated institutions from paying health care premiums for contraceptive services. Then, on Feb. 10, President Obama announced a compromise solution by which religious institutions would be exempt from paying the objectionable premiums but women would not be denied contraceptive coverage. A confrontation that should never have happened was over. But not for long.

After a nod to the White House’s retreat as “a first step in the right direction,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rejected the president’s “accommodation” as insufficient. Their statement presented a bill of indictments on the fine points of public policy: It opposed any mandate for contraceptive coverage, expanded the list of claimants for exemption to include self-insured employers and for-profit business owners and contested the administration’s assertion that under the new exemption religious employers would not pay for contraception. Some of these points, particularly the needs of self-insured institutions like universities, have merit and should find some remedy. Others, with wonkish precision, seem to press the religious liberty campaign too far.


The bishops have been most effective in influencing public policy when they have acted as pastors, trying to build consensus in church and society, as they did in their pastorals on nuclear war and the economy. The American public is uncomfortable with an overt exercise of political muscle by the hierarchy. Catholics, too, have proved more responsive to pastoral approaches. They expect church leaders to appeal to Gospel values, conscience and right reason. They hope bishops will accept honorable accommodations and, even when provoked, not stir up hostility. In the continuing dialogue with government, a conciliatory style that keeps Catholics united and cools the national distemper would benefit the whole church.

The religious liberty campaign seems to have abandoned a moral distinction that undergirded the conference’s public advocacy in past decades: the contrast between authoritative teaching on matters of principle and debatable applications of principle to public policy. The natural law tradition assigned application to the prudent judgment of public officials. Writing of policy differences in 1983, the bishops wrote, “The Church expects a certain diversity of views even though all hold the same universal moral principles.” Contemporary Catholic social teaching has spoken of policy in terms of “a legitimate variety of possible options” for the faithful and the wider public; it has urged that differences over policy be tempered by charity and civility.

The campaign also risks ignoring two fundamental principles of Catholic political theology. Official Catholic rights theory proposes that people should be willing to adjust their rights claims to one another. It also assigns to government the responsibility to coordinate contending rights and interests for the sake of the common good. The campaign fails to acknowledge that in the present instance, claims of religious liberty may collide with the right to health care, or that the religious rights of other denominations are in tension with those of Catholics. But as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in “Deus Caritas Est,” the church does not seek to “impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to the faith.” Furthermore, the campaign fails to admit that the administration’s Feb. 10 solution, though it can be improved, fundamentally did what Catholic social teaching expects government to do—coordinate contending rights for the good of all.

By stretching the religious liberty strategy to cover the fine points of health care coverage, the campaign devalues the coinage of religious liberty. The fight the bishop’s conference won against the initial mandate was indeed a fight for religious liberty and for that reason won widespread support. The latest phase of the campaign, however, seems intended to bar health care funding for contraception. Catholics legitimately oppose such a policy on moral grounds. But that opposition entails a difference over policy, not an infringement of religious liberty. It does a disservice to the victims of religious persecution everywhere to inflate policy differences into a struggle over religious freedom. Such exaggerated protests likewise show disrespect for the freedom Catholics have enjoyed in the United States, which is a model for the world—and for the church.

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Jack Murphy
5 years 10 months ago
When will the good Jesuits finally admit that they are no longer in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church and  decamp the True Faith for good?  It is time to take down the statues of St, Ignatius, St. Isaac Jogues, and the rest of the great historical Jesuits and replace them with the new heroes of modern(ist) Jesuitism, namely, Margaret Sanger, Hans Kung, and Father Curran. Before you set up Planned Parenthood camps on the campuses of BC, Fordham, etc., why don't you make your formal break with Rome and join a church more suitable to your particular political bent.  Perhaps the RC state church of China will take you in.  They're authoritarian, they despise the Pope, and they are Marxists - all qualities which would help make a most seemless transition. The charade the Society has been playing at these last decades is getting all too tiring and transparent.  Surely, you have no plancs to stay much longer so why not call an end now?
Suogalana Egami
5 years 10 months ago
In Genesis, we read:  'And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth...'

Has it occured to anyone that we, his children, have in fact completed His mandate?  Can anyone think of some part of the planet earth that does not contain his children?  Inner Greenland, Antartica, the Sahara, etc. cannot support life, and don't count.

In truth, we have fulfilled God's word: we HAVE been fruitful, and we HAVE multiplied, enormously. (ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population_estimates)

Estimates from multiple sources place the planet's population at ~300 million during Christ's life.
Now we have ~7 billion, approximately 23 times as large.

The overriding relationship between a Christian and the Lord is one of personal conscience/personal choice. Otherwise, we are merely robots. God created us so that we could love him of our own free will. God could have simply created automatons that walked around all day long saying "Great is God, how I love thee...". But that didn't happen. Instead, God created a partner, the Bride of Christ. We, the human race, all of us, are that partner.

God's message for us today is, "Go forth, and for each of you, create but one child, for my creation, the Earth, cannot support more than that. Use your own choice to decide when and where the time is right to bring forth the ultimate expression of my love. Do not mindlessly breed until my children are pressed against the "bars" of the "cage", and have crossed the thin red line. Do NOT bear fruit only to see it rot on the ground."

We are not supposed to breed until we break the planet's ability to support us, and we begin dying at our replacement rate. When that happens, the Apocalypse begins, in fact, has already begun.

As an example, I want all of you readers to seriously consider what is going to happen to the middle east after the U.S., Europe, China, and India have pumped the last drop of oil out of the ground. The middle east, being primarily desert, traditionally only supported a population of a few dozen million. With the black gold, their population soared to nearly a billion. When the oil is gone, so is their income, and their food. They will die in the hundreds of millions. There is no other way, no more food.

Somehow, this is a "womens" issue. Women take birth control, not men. I note that a group of old, balding males sit around making rules about what women should do with their bodies, all the while watching as God's children starve to death.

It's time for the women to say: "Men do not tell women what to do with their bodies. Men do not own women's bodies. Men do not make decisions about women's bodies."

Most Catholics in this country rely on contraception. I hear almost nothing from the millions of Catholic women who depend upon contraception. What I hear almost universally is from that segment of the population who have nothing to do with contraception, the MEN!

All these men are soooooo concerned about Obama, and contraception, and state v.s. "religious freedom".  I have a good idea for all of you males:

Why don't you put an aspirin between YOUR knees? Then this entire, ridiculous, overblown issue would go away. That is, of course, unless Obama insists upon having your employer pay for your aspirin! In which case, the good Catholic women of the U.S. should rise up in righteous indignation that Catholic males 'religious freedom' is being crushed by a "statist government secular progressive liberal health care decision maker".

This is a non-issue. The will of the 97% that agree that women should have universal access to contraception will prevail.  


Elmer Stoup
5 years 10 months ago

Suoglalana (No. 105):

Birth control pills and arbortion-inducing drugs are readily available everywhere. However our freedoms, religious and otherwise, are under fearsome assault by the Leviathan.

It's unfortunate that in the choice between free birth control pills and freedom, you've apparently chosen free pills.

joseph malloy
5 years 10 months ago
The devil is the author of confusion and this article reeks of it.
5 years 10 months ago
I may not have agreed with all the points raised in this editorial, but some of these responses have renewed my conviction that a structure that insists on an absolute conformity of ideas may not not serve the Gospel well. Our Church is certainly big enough to allow a journal to fulfill its intended purpose (to provide a forum for ideas). Thanks America for having the courage to do what a good journal must occasionally do (oppose dominant opinion). I hope this over-reaction doesn't go any further.
Elmer Stoup
5 years 10 months ago

Mr. Plevak (No. 108):

Would appreciate you telling us where you stand on the HHS Mandate, instead of saying, "I may not agreed with all the points."

I can't believe you, or the editors for that matter, actually believe the editors' unsupported assertion that the President made an accomodation with the Church or did anything other than pitch the 1st Amendment into the circular file. We, at least most of us, aren't so stupid to fall for this cheap accounting gimmick.

Thus, what is so outrageous about the editorial is that these Jesuits think we are indeed this stupid. I say this as someone who graduated from a Jesuit high school, went to a Jesuit college for two years before joining the Army, and sent my son to another Jesuit high school.

Please tell me where the vast majority of the commenters and I are off-base.

5 years 10 months ago

Perhaps more concerning than a loss of religious liberty is the loss of our willingness to tolerate the expression (by person or journal) of an alternate view.

While I am against the HHS Mandate, I do not want to be identifed with the the rhetoric of those who are leading the campaign to oppose it.
Don Roberto Hill
5 years 10 months ago

No one is trying to stop rebellious Catholics, non-believers or pagans from using chemical contraception, despite its cancer causing, environmentally damaging properties.  We are trying to prevent an administration with a record or unconcern for traditional values from further eroding religious liberty by requiring individuals to offer immoral products and services to their employees.  And we should be clear that there is no objection to offering contraceptives to treat disease.  The issue is with recreational contraceptive drugs (insofar as many apparently see sex as recreation).  

5 years 10 months ago
Boy have we lost our way.  What person in this country is forced to use birth control against his/her will?  What person is forced to have an abortion without their consent?  These decisions are made at the level of the individual.  The responsibllty of their choices resides with the individuals who make them.  The Church has a decided responsibility to form the consciences of individuals along the lines of Her principles.  Ultimately, though these decisions are those of individuals, not the US government, not the priests, not the Bishops, not the Pope.  Individuals can sin or they can abstain from sinning and the moral culpability falls to the individual.  (BTW:  They are also afforded the opportunity to repent and be forgiven in the sacrament of Reconciliation and be restored to the state of grace because the example of Jesus was to welcome sinners.)

Mandating that health insurers themselves provide reproductive health services to individuals at no expense to the insured or to the providers of that insurance seems to be the rule that the Obama administration is applying to this question.  I fail to see how this position compromises the ability of individuals to exercise their moral judgment regarding contraception and abortion.  Whether or not these services are covered by their insurance, they are free to make the right moral choice.  I also fail to see how this policy coerces Church-associated insitutions to directly pay for contraception or abortion. Speaking purely from a financial perspective, insurance companies that provide contraceptives actually make money because the costs associated with the avoided births outstrip the costs of the contraceptives themselves. So their incentives are to provide this service even if they do not charge for it.  Their insured pool is sufficiently large to be able to do t his even if there is a substantial number of individuals who do not use the contraceptive "benefit".  Thus claims that insurance companies will pass on the charges of contraceptives and abortions to the unsuspecting Catholic-affiliated organizations are fiscally unreasonable and unsubstantiated.  

Perhaps the Bishops and the Church-affiliated institutions in the US and elsewhere should consider providing morally acceptable health insurance to Catholics.  The self-insured Catholic risk pool would certainly be large enough to be financially viable if a substantial number of Catholics joined.  And there would be no need for the Catholic insurance company to provide services or ask the participating Catholics to pay for those services deemed morally unacceptable.  If you are truly interested in religious liberty in the context of a pluralistic society you have to put your money where your principles are.  I maintain this would be a more fruitful exercise than lathering up the electorate in an election year over a diversion from all of the other considerable challenges facing this country (sufficiently discssed above).  As for those whose salaries or jobs are at stake because they have refused to provide abortions or contraceptives against their wills, I sincerely say hooray for them.  They are a witness to us all becuase they are authentically living within their well formed consciences and suffering a financial martyrdom for Christ.

Finally, couching this argument in terms of "religious liberty" is a diversion from the central issues at play here in my view.  I know of no one in this country who is not free to attend mass, to live a good Catholic life, to articulate his/her Catholic-informed points of view in the public arena.  This is religious liberty.  The Bishops are exerising it in the course of this discussion.  If they loose the arguement with the administration, they have to accept that temporarily because we live in a pluralistic society whose principles will necessarily be at odds with the Catholic views at times.  I say, be charitable, gracious in defeat, stick to your principles and persistently continue the discussion.   However please don't try to make the case that religious liberty is threatened by the current health insurance discussion.  
Carlos Orozco
5 years 10 months ago
A little reminder of history and current trends. All in little more than five minutes:


David Gray
5 years 10 months ago

The article presents a very sophistic argument which caters to the writer's presumption or belief that there is a discontent between the pastoral approach that the Bishops have engaged in concerning this issue and the duty they have to protect the Church and her sons and daughters from being owned, controlled, or coerced by the state. The duty of the Church is to gracefully facilitate that unique union between God and man that makes us saints.  That duty is at war with the state which is efforting demonically to facilitate that pitiful union between man and the condition of sin.

It is becoming more and more clear that America magazine, indeed perhaps the entire Jesuit order of North America should be abolished. This magazine and nearly every university they administer is a hindrance to Catholics and the Church. Fiat Lux.

David L. Gray

Veronica Arntz
5 years 10 months ago
Certainly, Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" that Catholics do not seek to impose the faith upon others who are unwilling to receive it. This is absolutely true and remains true within the context of the Bishops' attack on the HHS mandate. The HHS mandate is not about the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception: it is about upholding religious freedom in America. Catholic social teaching, in addition to describing the willingness to work with those in society, also notes that the government is meant only to protect justice. The government has no right to interfere with the private sector: its duty is to give justice to the common good. What the administration has done is exactly what this article is accusing the Church of: imposing its own beliefs upon society. The Catholic Chuch has been, is and always will be opposed to contraception. By forcing insurance companies to pay for it, even Catholic ones, this is an imposition on a Catholics' right to religious freedom. The Catholic Church is not saying that a woman cannot go out and buy birth control on her own, if she should so choose. Of course, the Church would discourage her from it, but she is always free to buy it herself. In the same way, the Church also is free to believe what She wants. The HHS mandate is not about policy, except the policy to impose the beliefs of the administration upon all in the country.
E.Patrick Mosman
5 years 8 months ago
What happened to Bishop Lori's comment originally posted as #66? I referred this article to several friends in Baltimore, Bishop's Lori's new assignment, and referenced his comment. They told it is no longer posted. A quick check confirmed that Bishop Lori's post has once again been removed as have several posts referring to its original removal.

Tom Schneck
5 years 8 months ago
Catholic moral theology trumps Catholic political theology, whatever that is.  The duty of Catholic bishops, as well as Catholic educational institutions, is to promulgate the Word with teaching of principles now being violated by governmental fiats, seen in marriage, immigration and health care policy edicts.

Religious liberty is not a strategy but an American tradition that arises from our history and law (biblical, Constitutional and decisional).  The "go along and get along" tone of this editorial is repugnant to me as a Catholic.


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