The Catholic Bishops Are Right to Oppose the Health and Human Services Mandate
There’s a joke out there that the Obama administration has been able to do what the pope could never dream of doing: bringing almost all the U.S. bishops into agreement. As of now, 169 Catholic bishops have voiced their opposition to the HHS ruling that will require many Catholic institutions to cover contraceptives, regular STD check and sterilizations in their insurance policies.
From what I’ve seen, a lot of commentators simply don’t get why the bishops are so adamant about this. Most Catholics use contraceptives, and no Catholic is being forced to use them against his or her will, so what’s the problem?
Well, this: in addition to the mandate constituting a basic violation of religious freedom, it will inevitably result in material cooperation of Catholics with acts deemed immoral by their religion. Because the bishops, in keeping with the faith they’re charged with upholding, consider material cooperation with the use of contraceptives to be itself a gravely sinful matter, they object to Catholics being forced into such participation. The condition of being coerced may diminish the culpability of Catholics who are forced to cover the costs of contraceptives, and in effect pay for their use, but even so their participation still amounts to complicity and therefore something to be avoided. In sum, the mandate, by requiring in practice material cooperation with contraceptives, requires Catholics to act in a way contrary to the moral teachings of their faith. For these reasons, the Catholic bishops argue they have the right to oppose and fight the mandate.
Now I would be remiss to imagine that the religious and moral principles espouses by the bishops are the only ones at play here. As Noah Millman rightly observes, what we have here is a clash of values. The Obama administration has done what it thinks is the right thing to do: expanded access to contraceptives and sterilizations, which it, with most of society, sees as an important part of healthcare. In its view, the people who work for Catholic institutions, who, after all, are not all of the Catholic faith, should be included among those given greater access to contraceptives and sterilizations. The administration is looking out for the healthcare rights of people working in the United States.
So what’s the solution to this clash of values? In my not-so-humble opinion, religious liberty should win over government mandated access to healthcare. Here’s why. Because the mandate is an act of government, we are not, in assessing it, faced with the question of whether or not the Catholic Church should provide coverage for contraceptives. That’s an important question and one well worth discussing, but answering it, even in the affirmative, does not tell us whether the mandate is legitimate. Rather, the question with which we are faced is whether or not the government has the authority under the law to violate the Catholic Church’s religious freedom in order to provide greater access to health care goods and services.
Given that 1) protecting religious liberty is a more fundamental role of government than regulating healthcare and 2) the Catholic Church’s teachings on contraceptives, sterilizations and so forth do not, in themselves, constitute a grave harm (though they may be put to ill use), I have to say no, the mandate, as written, is neither legitimate nor just. Healthcare is part of the common good, and as such government has a responsibility to ensure that people have access to it, but it makes no sense to me for the government to undermine one of its fundamental reasons for existence in order to expand access to contraceptives and sterilizations, however important they may be.