The current debate about Obamacare and religious freedom assumes institutions endowed with certain inalienable rights. Today, the corporate is personal: we count not just corporations but institutions as people. At times, the rights of corporate bodies, whether incorporated or ecclesial, trump the rights of individuals. Corporate bodies seemingly enjoy more personhood than even people do.
Indeed, like people, institutions should be granted certain rights.
But Catholic Social Teaching rightly stresses that rights create obligations. Human beings are not simply owed; they owe. Human dignity is duty-bound. For this reason, Catholic institutions must not only exercise their own rights, they must protect the rights of others.
While we have spent a great deal of time and energy thinking about what Catholic institutions are owed, we have spent far less time and energy thinking about what Catholic institutions owe.
In making this claim, I do not take sides in the debate about contraception and religious freedom. I have written about this issue here and here. For an excellent critique of the moral logic deployed by the University of Notre Dame in their suit against the federal government, see this piece by Grant Gallicho over at Commonweal.
I wish to pursue a different point.
Catholic institutions aggrieved by federal health insurance laws claim that, in depriving them of religious freedom, these laws impede their capacity to live in conformity with Catholic teaching. For them, religious freedom does not simply provide justice; it enables moral integrity. Coerced into indirect and remote participation with individual women’s decision to take contraception, these institutions believe themselves morally imperiled.
But if these institutions believe that indirectly and remotely participating in another person’s sins fractures their moral integrity, how much more should Catholic institutions fear for their moral lives when their disobedience of Catholic teaching is direct, immediate, and willful?
For example, Catholic universities often disobey Catholic teaching in the three following areas: paying all of their employees a living wage; allowing their employees to form unions; and dismantling systematic racism.
Defying the magisterium’s clear pro-union stance, Catholic universities like Duquesne actively oppose their employees’ right to unionize. Disregarding papal pronouncements on the dignity of work, Catholic universities like Notre Dame decline to pay all of their workers a living wage. Failing to uphold magisterial teaching on racial equality, historically white Catholic universities continue to perpetuate white supremacy.
Non-white students, especially African-Americans and Latinos of color, remain dramatically underrepresented on these college campuses. Catholic universities do not simply educate; they confer power and privilege. This holds especially true for the more prestigious Catholic universities. In admitting an inflated share of whites, Catholic colleges ensure white supremacy’s survival.
Confusing socioeconomically-biased measures like the SAT for markers of merit, Catholic colleges sanction racial hierarchy. More impressed by an academically successful student from a “good,” that is, predominately white and almost always affluent high school, than one from a “struggling” school in the inner city, Catholic colleges affirm the operation of white supremacist racial segregation in our nation’s primary and secondary schools. In so doing, they believe the lies that white supremacy tells about black and brown schoolchildren living in segregated spaces.
In contrast to their indirect participation in the contraceptive behavior of their employees, Catholic universities partake in these sins on their own accord. No law compels their hostility to unions; their submission to market forces; or their easy acceptance of a white supremacist status quo.
If the spate of anti-Obama(care) suits really issues from a concern with moral integrity, then shouldn’t Catholic institutions care more for the sins they commit directly and willfully then for the sins they enable indirectly and reluctantly?
Some universities justify their decision to disobey magisterial teaching about the living wage by claiming helplessness in the face of market forces. The market made me do it, they plea. But the litigious intransigence displayed by some Catholic institutions in the Obamacare era makes this excuse seem specious. They have more fight in them than they might wish to admit. Catholic institutions willingly pour money, and PR into exhausting court battles against Obamacare, why can’t they fight the market with the same fierce spirit of relentless resistance?
Catholic institutions like the University of Notre Dame pride themselves on their principled counter-culturalism in the case of their refusal to accept a contraceptive status quo. On television commercials shown during the home football games, the university markets itself by asking, “what are you fighting for?” But when confronted by the market, the university quits before kick-off. What tho’ the odds, indeed.
If Catholic institutions really cannot withstand the pressure of structural forces, and if reigning structures render sin inevitable, then should they not fight for their eradication at least as intensely as they have been fighting against Obamacare? What good is “God, Country, Notre Dame,” if “country” keeps “Notre Dame” from obeying God?
When Catholic institutions seek exemptions from federal healthcare laws, they pursue freedom from. They ask for the right to be left alone; to remain uninfringed upon.
But Catholic Social Teaching conceives of freedom somewhat differently than the United States’ classically liberal founders do. Human beings need not just freedom from, but freedom for. This line of thought recognizes that, without the capacity to do and be good, we are not really free.
Overlooking the connection between structural injustice and their own corporate immorality, they seem undisturbed by their lack of freedom for. In so doing, they have transferred the individualistic tendencies of certain post-Enlightenment understandings of rights to the corporate sphere. Corporate bodies comport themselves individualistically.
In elevating negative freedom above positive freedom, these institutions exemplify the truth of Catholic teaching by defying it. People cannot acquire virtue simply by being left alone; virtue results from the cultivation of good habits. But it is hard to be good in a bad world. Rather than simply being allowed to obey Catholic teaching, Catholic institutions also sometimes need to be forced to.
Too often, Catholic institutions, like Catholic individuals, construe freedom only as the license to do what we want rather than the capacity to do what we ought.
What are we fighting for?