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Monday, February 13, 2012

Obama and the Bishops--What Friday Changed

This is not meant as my final word on this, or even a clearly polished tentative word, but I do want to respond to my conscience and voice my thoughts on the ongoing debate over the Obama administration’s policies with respect to contraceptive coverage (full disclosure—my wife is one of thousands of employees of HHS).

On Friday President Obama announced a new protocol for the ongoing dispute over contraceptive services and the sanctity of conscience. Over the months of this dispute I have been supportive of the Catholic bishop’s argument that the HHS exemption for religious institutions was too narrow. I agreed with many inside of and outside of the Roman Catholic Church who said that the kind of operational definition of “religion” implicit in the HHS mandate represented a privatization of religion that struck at the fabric of our constitutionally protected rights and that threatened the primacy of conscience so dear to the ordered liberty we profess to aspire to. I agreed, in other words, that this was a foundational question of religious liberty and as such I thought it was understandable that the bishops would be taking a leading role in fighting the enforcement of the mandate. Of course, the HHS mandate raised a host of other policy questions that people of good will could argue fiercely over and that bishops were welcome to have opinions on just like other citizens. These questions include: Is the Affordable Care Act (ACA) going to engender more and more specific guidelines to insurers? Is that appropriate? Is that the “nanny state”? Should all these contraceptives be viewed as the same morally, or are there important distinctions to be made between condoms, the pill, RU 486, etc.? Should prevention of pregnancy be viewed as a preventive health policy? All of these questions are legitimate and vital to be engaged in, but they are not of the same order as the question of violation of conscience and they do not require the kind of authoritative voice and active participation of the bishops to answer. 

In my opinion, the president’s proposal on Friday has addressed the question of conscience. I believe that the complex nature of how the modern managerial state interacts with insurance companies, the complex nature of how religiously affiliated institutions interact with their parent religious bodies and with the various levels of governmental oversight, and the complex nature of employee contributions to employer provided health policies and the rights that each have in that equation make a perfect and pure solution to these questions very difficult. In my opinion, the vital question of conscience has been adequately addressed by the president’s proposal which I take to be the following: directly religious institutions like parishes and diocesan offices will be completely exempt from the mandate (this has always been the case), and religiously affiliated institutions that use private insurers will not be implicated in the act of providing contraceptive services because letters from the insurance companies will be sent to the individual policy holders explaining that the services are being offered in compliance with the HHS mandate not in compliance with the wishes of the religiously affiliated institution that helps to provide the insurance coverage.

In my opinion, this is showing appropriate deference to the consciences of the individuals involved. I don’t think that God will hold the religious entity accountable for providing these contraceptives and therefore I don’t think that conscience is being violated going forward. That does not mean that people should be happy with this law or that taking contraceptives is a Catholic virtue or that Catholic social teaching is in harmony with the whole process. Individual Catholics are free to fight this law and to seek congressional or judicial restriction of it. But I do not think that this fight should be taken any longer to imply that the Obama administration is, as Cardinal George once put it, destroying Catholic institutions with the stroke of a pen. 

President Obama did not create the enormously complex modern society that we live in. He may not have hit the balance exactly right in this decision. I believe it is wrong for the government to be mandating insurance companies to have to provide any contraceptive that could be abortifacient. I wish a lot of things about this mandate were different. But I do not think it is fair to imply that this remains a clear strike at religious conscience and a crisis of First Amendment freedoms. I do not think that the bishops should categorize it as such and I do not think it would be wise for them to continue to characterize whatever remaining concerns that they have about the situation in terms that imply intent to damage religious institutions on the part of Obama and determination to undermine the First Amendment. 

I welcome correction and feedback. Just as I don't want to expect purity from Obama administration, I don't expect purity from my bishops. I have more to learn on this issue. But I think that for now I am content to view this much as I do other heated political and legislative controversies and not as I do fundamental constitutional questions.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Was John Paul II "dangerous" to the anti-abortion cause?

The leadership of the Cornwall Alliance is worried about the pro-life movement. According to a new statement they have written, signed by major figures in the anti-abortion movement, they believe that the integrity of the term “pro-life”, as well as the political effectiveness of those who want to end abortion, is under attack. Their statement is signed by major figures in the anti-abortion movement and it is gaining media coverage. Although the immediate object of Cornwall’s wrath is environmentalists who claim the pro-life label, the argument they are making over the definition of pro-life has ramifications well beyond environmental concerns. The signers of this statement want to weed out anyone who they believe waters down the term “pro-life”, but their definition of what constitutes watering down the term is anyone who is “appealing to a ‘seamless garment’ of support for life, or to being ‘consistently pro-life’ or ‘completely pro-life.’” In other words, anyone who sees the term pro-life as encompassing more than the abortion struggle is "disengenuous and dangerous to our efforts to protect the lives of unborn children."They go on to assert that “the term pro-life originated historically in the struggle to end abortion on demand and continues to be used in public discourse overwhelmingly in that sense. To ignore that is at best sloppy communication and at worst intentional deception. The life in pro-life denotes not quality of life but life itself. The term denotes opposition to a procedure that intentionally results in dead babies.” [emphasis in original]

This is a very strange statement coming from leaders of a movement who regularly claim John Paul II as a guiding force. It is without dispute that the anti-abortion movement in America considered John Paul II a powerful advocate for their cause, and it is equally true that John Paul II’s most decisive teaching on abortion came in his historic encyclical “The Gospel of Life”, written in 1995. Anyone who knows the history of the anti-abortion movement in America knows the significance of this writing—along with Francis Schaeffer’s Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, “The Gospel of Life” is a central text for those convinced of the anti-abortion position. And certainly John Paul II in that writing viewed abortion as the most significant pro-life issue facing the world. But the primacy of the issue of abortion in no way limited John Paul’s understanding of the term pro-life to just abortion. In fact, at the very beginning of “The Gospel of Life” John Paul says:

The Second Vatican Council, in a passage which retains all its relevance today, forcefully condemned a number of crimes and attacks against human life. Thirty years later, taking up the words of the Council and with the same forcefulness I repeat that condemnation in the name of the whole Church, certain that I am interpreting the genuine sentiment of every upright conscience: "Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator".5

The signers of the Cornwall Statement are in serious error, according to John Paul II and Vatican II, when they say that the only “truly pro-life issues” are “abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research”. The anti-abortion movement can certainly turn to John Paul II’s writings as confirmation of the primacy of the issue of abortion, but they are completely out of step with John Paul’s understanding of the gospel of life when they attempt to exclude environmentalists and others from using the term “pro-life” to describe their work.