As many of you know, a few weeks ago, President Obama mandated that Catholic hospitals would have to begin providing birth control inclusive health care coverage for their employees.
Opponents of this decision claim that, in making the Catholic church provide birth control-inclusive health coverage to those who work in their hospitals, the federal government is forcing the Catholic church to do something that violates its religious beliefs. The Catholic Church is being persecuted, they cry. Catholics should not simply oppose this decision; they should be outraged about it. Indeed, many Catholics are acting as though this is the worst thing a U.S. President has done in a really, really, really long time.
But, I don’t want to tell these outraged Catholics that they’re wrong; I want only to figure out if they’re making any sense.
Are Catholics who believe this ruling violates their first amendment rights being consistent? Given everything else U.S. Catholics believe, does it make sense to believe that providing birth control inclusive health insurance to employees of Catholic hospitals makes the Catholic church morally culpable if these employees use their health insurance to buy birth control, and, following from this, that mandating birth control inclusive coverage violates the 1st amendment rights of Catholics and/or the Catholic Church?
I propose the following thought experiment to help us (U.S. Catholics) figure out if what we say we believe about Obama and birth control is coherent. This thought experiment consists of three scenarios and a question. If we can genuinely and with conviction answer yes to each of the three questions listed below, then we have good reason to think our outrage over President Obama’s ruling makes sense; if we answer ‘no’ to any of these questions, then our outrage does not make sense and we need to reconsider our reaction.
Imagine that many of this nation’s hospitals and health care facilities were run by an extremely conservative group of Muslims. Imagine that the leaders of this branch of Islam thought that it was immoral for women to be treated by male doctors. Imagine that, wishing to obey Allah in all things, they refused to provide their hospital employees with health insurance plans that covered women’s visits to male doctors. Imagine that this extended even to their non-Muslim employees. Do you think these hypothetical Muslim hospitals should be allowed to deprive even their non-Muslim employees of this coverage?
What if allowing Muslim hospitals to refuse to pay for these visits would mean that women would receive inferior medical treatment? Would you still maintain that the 1st amendment granted these Muslim hospitals the right to refuse to cover women’s visits to male doctors?
Imagine learning that a devout Catholic business owner provides her employees health insurance, which covers birth control. Do you think that she incurs guilt if any of her employees decide to use their health insurance to buy birth control?
And if it makes a difference, imagine further that this Catholic business owner herself believes that birth control to be evil and she goes out of her way to share with her employees the benefits that natural family planning brought to her marriage. Her employees know that she thinks birth control is wrong. Don’t ask yourself whether you think her decision to provide this coverage is right (I argue that this is a slightly different question) but ask yourself whether she incurs guilt for her employees’ deciding to use their health insurance to buy birth control.
Think now of the current, actual reality of being a citizen of the United States of America. Our tax dollars fund many things that violate the church’s teaching. Do you think that paying taxes in the United States of America makes a tax-paying Catholic morally culpable for unjust war, torture, the death penalty, and the enforcement of immigration laws? Do you think that the government is violating the religious freedom of Catholics when it insists that they must pay all state and federal taxes? Or, do you agree with the government that Catholics should not be able to pick and choose where there tax money goes to?
I can only guess how most U.S. Catholics and their bishops would answer the first two, but I have already received their answer to the third. Catholics are allowed to pay taxes, even though they fund unjust war, torture, the death penalty, and unjust immigration laws. Even though torture, like birth control, is an intrinsic evil. Even though the mere fact that something is intrinsically evil does not make it more evil than something that is only circumstantially evil. The magisterium considers masturbation to be an intrinsic evil while war is only evil in certain circumstances. Yet no one would think teenaged masturbation a greater evil than unjust war.
I personally am undecided as to whether or not simply by paying taxes I am implicated in the evils my taxes help fund. My point is simply that I do not see how we can think the federal government making Catholics pay taxes that fund evil is acceptable but its making Catholic hospitals provide health insurance that covers birth control is not.
To summarize, if Muslim hospitals should not be allowed to refuse to pay for their female employees’ visits to male doctors, if we do not think private business owners are necessarily morally responsible for what their employees decide to do with their health insurance, and if we do not think a Catholic is necessarily sinning or being deprived of their 1st amendment rights by having to pay taxes, then I do not see how we can justifiably be this upset about the HHS ruling.
Perhaps we think that this recent HHS ruling is different because the government is forcing the church to do something it thinks is wrong. If outrage over this ruling is truly motivated by a concern to preserve the moral integrity of the church, then I think we have it entirely backwards. As Catholics, we should be much more worried about the evil we do willingly than the evil we are forced to do.
Also, if we are going to circumscribe the limits of licit material cooperation in evil so narrowly that providing birth control inclusive health insurance to even non-Catholic employees makes us morally culpable in their sin, then I suggest we need to seriously re-consider many practices the Church considers not just to be morally acceptable but in fact morally good. For example, I am not really sure how providing birth control inclusive health insurance constitutes illicit material cooperation in evil when having a military chaplaincy does not. In fact, it seems likely that through the military chaplaincy the church has cooperated in the evil of unjust war not just materially but formally.
How can we be this upset about the HHS ruling when we have so little outrage for so many other things?