Religious Liberty Only for the Majority and the Mainstream
Kevin Drum captures what I take to be the thinking of the Obama administration regarding conscience protections in the HHS mandate: “Americans don’t have any problem with contraception. American Catholics don’t have any problem with contraception. And on a public health basis, requiring healthcare plans to cover contraception is common sense. No one — almost literally no one — thinks there’s any problem with it. It’s a non-issue.” He’s right that most Catholics have no qualms about using contraceptives, but wrong to think the church hierarchy’s objection to contraception is a non-issue.
I can testify to the fact that there is a small minority of Catholics who live according to the teachings of a “tiny number of men in the formal hierarchy of the Catholic church.” And no, contra Drum, this minority isn’t ideologically driven. Drum mistakes assent to orthodoxy for adherence to ideology; that those who object to birth control tend to be Republican is not a sign of ideological motivation, necessarily, but rather the consequence of the Republican Party’s general hospitality to religious and social conservative values. But I digress. Some Catholics—not many, but some—have a deep moral objection to contraception. They object to it on moral, metaphysical, and religious grounds. Contraception is a matter of conscience for a minority. So is material cooperation with it.
Drum’s position here is that the conscientious objection of this minority shouldn’t matter because it’s a minority, fringe view: “it’s arguably reasonable, I think, for the government to tread carefully in areas where there’s substantial, highly-charged controversy, such as abortion. But contraception just isn’t one of those areas.” In other words, hey, there’s a consensus even among Catholics in favor of contraceptives, so there’s no need for the government to tread carefully, i.e., protect the conscience rights of those few who dissent from the consensus. I’ll be blunt: if religious liberty is recognized only for the majority and the mainstream, then it ain’t worth a damn.
Drum may be on more solid footing when he says that the church’s policy on contraceptives has “caused incalculable pain and misery for millions of women around the globe.” I’ve no doubt a few Catholics would disagree with this assessment, but there’s no contesting that Drum is here arguing against the orthodox Catholic position on contraceptives because of the evil consequences he attributes to it. This is a better argument. However, even if we assume Drum’s assessment of the church’s policy is accurate, it doesn’t on its own establish grounds for forcing Catholics and Catholic institutions who freely wish to follow the church’s teaching to violate their conscience or suffer the consequences under the law. It would establish reasonable grounds on which to oppose any attempt by the church to use, say, the force of law to coerce people into following its teachings, but that’s a separate issue.