The HHS Mandate: A Question of Religious Freedom or the Life Issues?


June 27, 2012

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three part article that will discuss the current approach of the US Bishops in order to thank them and praise their efforts, while at the same time pointing out a certain oversight in their approach.  Following parts will look at the reasons not often mentioned for which the Administration is enacting the HHS Mandate as well as ideas on how most wisely to approach the question of contraception in the midst of the fight for religious freedom.

The Approach of the Bishops: Praise and A Question 

Stating What the Fight Is and Is Not About

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It is wonderful to see the unity, work and leadership of the Bishops in the fight for Religious freedom. We should both thank God for and join with them in their focused attention on the wrongheaded general principles they list as built into the Mandate: (1) an unwarranted government definition of religion; (2) a mandate to act against our teachings; and (3) a violation of personal civil rights. Regardless of the specific content of this mandate (contraception), these wrongheaded general principles violate the nature of freedom and conscience, and they violate the laws and customs of the United States of America. This would also be true if the government had begun its attack on religious freedom by forcing the Amish to subsidize car sales on their property. To isolate and name the wrongheaded general principles is necessary and the Bishops have done this in a way perhaps unprecedented in our recent history.

The emphasis on isolating the general principles within the Mandate has led to many statements asserting what the fight is not about. This too, the Bishops have stated,

This is not about access to contraception, which is ubiquitous and inexpensive, even when it is not provided by the Church’s hand and with the Church’s funds. This is not about the religious freedom of Catholics only, but also of those who recognize that their cherished beliefs may be next on the block. This is not about the Bishops’ somehow “banning contraception,” when the U.S. Supreme Court took that issue off the table two generations ago. Indeed, this is not about the Church wanting to force anybody to do anything; it is instead about the federal government forcing the Church—consisting of its faithful and all but a few of its institutions—to act against Church teachings. This is not a matter of opposition to universal health care, which has been a concern of the Bishops’ Conference since 1919, virtually at its founding.

With this statement, I also agree and am thankful for it.

Nonetheless, although this is not about access to contraception, nor about banning it, this is, in fact, about contraception. Yet, many recent statements have asserted that this is not about contraception. For example, in a recent high-profile interview, Cardinal Timothy Dolan stated that “We have to be very vigorous in insisting that this is not about contraception. It’s about religious freedom.” And in a Wall Street Journal interview he emphasized the point by stating, “We’ve grown hoarse saying this is not about contraception, this is about religious freedom.”

In part 2 of this article, we will see that for the Administration this is, even primarily so, about contraception and only secondarily about religious freedom. Furthermore, while it is correct that the Church should not force people to do anything, there is a difference between forcing and explaining. Pope John Paul II once famously said, “The Church imposes nothing, She proposes.” By deliberately focusing the discussion absolutely and exclusively on religious freedom, the proposing of the Good News of Church teaching on matters related to the specific content of the Mandate (contraception, sterilization and abortion) is left undone in various settings in which it should be addressed to varying degrees. It is a perfectly legitimate question, after reading the Bishops statement of what this is not about, for a thoughtful reader to ask: What are those Church teachings that the government wants you to violate, and are they good or bad? To avoid dealing with that question at all costs has deleterious effects not only on human relationships, but also on this very fight for religious freedom.

Parables and Analogies

The Archbishop of Baltimore, William Lori, who is also chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty, in testimony before Congress on February 16, used his “Parable of the Kosher Deli” which noted that if the government was beginning its assault on religious freedom by making orthodox Jews participate in serving pork in their deli’s, any person of good will would easily grasp both the reason why religious freedom should be respected, and the silliness of not respecting it when people can easily buy pork (or contraceptives) inexpensively at the grocery store next door. This analogy is helpful in that it serves to isolate and highlight a very serious general dimension of the dilemma we are currently facing: namely, the complete dismantling of the First Amendment, which would open the door to legal intrusions on Religious freedom in many other areas. The parable is also excellent in that it aids in gaining the broadest possible coalition of concerned citizens, many of whom have no qualms about using contraception, but who share the concern about this very worrying precedent. Just as we Catholics would certainly join with the Jews in fighting such a mandate in order to preserve religious freedom, so many non-Catholics will join with us now. Bishop Lori’s parable is a very important part of this fight, and I applaud it for the reasons just given.

As a Catholic Christian, I know the Hebrew Scriptures contain Divine Law. The Divine Law to not eat pork does not apply to me as a Christian, but since I know the reality of and meaning of Divine Law, I have full respect for the obedience to it that many Jewish people practice, and have practiced for millennia. As an American citizen who believes in religious freedom, I also have deep respect for the decision of the Amish to not drive cars, and I understand the rationale behind their choice.

Having said that, it must be pointed out that there is a very specific difference in kind between the Catholic teaching that using contraception is immoral and the prohibition of driving and pork on the part of the Amish and the Jewish respectively (there are, of course, also many other differences in kind between those two prohibitions). The specific difference in kind that I am referring to goes to the very heart of human anthropology, and is rooted in the natural law. The richness of Catholic teaching on human sexuality also shows that the analogy of Bishop Lori, like all analogies, only goes so far. Perhaps in brief Congressional testimony it was wise to leave the analogy where he did, but strictly speaking, Bishop Lori’s parable cannot work on those who hold to a moral imperative to reproductive rights. If you asked the authors of the HHS Mandate whether they think Orthodox Jews are being immoral in not allowing their people to eat pork, or whether they think the Amish are immoral in not teaching their children to drive cars, they would likely say, “No, those things are not immoral.” However, they do think that the Catholic Church is committing an immoral, irrational and, they would probably say inhuman, act, indeed, an abuse against women in morally prohibiting contraception.

Warning about Future Ramifications

Another approach is that of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who in a widely read piece said,

If you haven’t already purchased the Archdiocesan Directory for 2012, I would suggest you get one as a souvenir. On page L-3, there is a complete list of Catholic hospitals and health care institutions in Cook and Lake Counties. Two Lents from now, unless something changes, that page will be blank.

Here too, I applaud Cardinal George’s letter which, besides accurately foretelling what will happen two Lents from now, is also supposed to rally the people to get up and do something to prevent hospital closures. I wonder though, whether without an in depth and personal awareness of the truth and goodness of Church teaching on human sexuality, most readers of this quote will see it as hyperbole. Explanations must accompany quotations like this, and readers are right to look for them.

Another well-known recent and often re-posted quote of Cardinal George with respect to future ramifications is this one: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

Explaining the View That This Is Not About Contraception

In a recent interview about the HHS mandate in National Review Online, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was asked about the fact that many Catholics use contraception and support abortion rights. He answered,

That’s the wrong question. Plenty of self-described Catholics also commit adultery and cheat on their taxes. That doesn’t make them right, and it doesn’t make their behaviors “Catholic.” The central issue in the HHS-mandate debate isn’t contraception. Casting the struggle as a birth-control fight is just a shrewd form of dishonesty. The central issue in the HHS debate is religious liberty. The government doesn’t have the right to force religious believers and institutions to violate their religious convictions. But that’s exactly what the White House is doing.

This answer adds another important dimension to the complexity of the debate. The Archbishop is saying that the administration is trying to make the public discussion about contraception, and that this is a form of dishonesty because it is really about religious freedom. He is correct to point this out, because the administration is trying to focus the fight on contraception with the specific purpose of making the opponents of the mandate seem out of touch with contemporary people and thereby to deflect attention from the danger posed to the First Amendment, which they seem bent on dismantling. I agree with that aspect of his answer, and it is very important that the wider public understand it.

Yet, there is a bizarre irony in this tactic of the administration because for them this really is primarily about abortion, sterilization and contraception. They just see a simultaneous attack on religious freedom as a powerful means to achieve that goal, since many religions oppose one or more of the items to be covered. Thus, the question asked is not the wrong question and it is not unrelated to, but rather has a direct bearing on this fight.

What is the Relation between The Threat to Religious Freedom and The Specific Content of the Mandate?

All of the above is excellent, and to be supported and praised. And so, what I am about to say should not be understood as a criticism of this amazing work of unity and speech in the public sphere. Yet, all of the above approaches have in common the complete separation of the threat to religious freedom from the specific content of the Mandate itself. This is mistaken from the point of view of truth and it endangers the success of the fight for religious freedom. The complete separation of these two dimensions contains the following false, if unintended, premise: that there is no link whatsoever between the specific content of the Mandate and the threat to religious freedom we face because of it. That is false. There are, in fact, numerous links, and we ignore them at our peril.

Part II: The HHS Mandate: This is About Contraception
Part III: The HHS Mandate: What Now, In Light of the Supreme Court Ruling?


  • Peter J. Colosi

    Dr. Peter J. Colosi is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI.

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