Several Catholic bishops have threatened that, if made to comply with the HHS ruling requiring Catholic hospitals to indirectly pay for their employees’ birth control, the Catholic church will have no choice but to “give up its health care institutions for Lent.”

As Cardinal George argues:

What will happen if the HHS regulations are not rescinded? A Catholic institution, so far as I can see right now, will have one of four choices: 1) secularize itself, breaking its connection to the church, her moral and social teachings and the oversight of its ministry by the local bishop. This is a form of theft. It means the church will not be permitted to have an institutional voice in public life. 2) Pay exorbitant annual fines to avoid paying for insurance policies that cover abortifacient drugs, artificial contraception and sterilization. This is not economically sustainable. 3) Sell the institution to a non-Catholic group or to a local government. 4) Close down.

In other words, the Catholic church would rather get out of the healthcare business altogether, even though it would mean sacrificing all the good that Catholic hospitals do, than be made to do something that it considers to be immoral.  The moral philosophy guiding this conclusion would seem to be the following: it would be better to not do good in order to avoid doing evil than to do evil in order to keep doing good.

If this is true, then should we not also get out of the U.S. military business?

This statement probably seems like a huge non sequitur so let me explain.

As the bishops remind us in their 1983 document The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, when it comes to matters of war and peace, a Catholic has only two options: either pacifism or adherence to just war theory.

The meaning of pacifism is straightforward enough: it is the belief that all wars, of any kind and for any reason, are always wrong. But just war theory, precisely because it is not a form of moral absolutism, is much more easily misrepresented.  It is not, as some seem to think, an excuse for war.  Just war theory begins from the presumption that war is almost always wrong.  This is why, in the Summa, Thomas Aquinas conducts his treatment of war by asking “whether it is always sinful to wage war?” For Thomas, war is the exception; not the rule.  The benefit of the doubt is always given to peace.

In sum, a Catholic must either think that all wars are wrong or that most wars are wrong.

But the United States military does not allow for this.  Currently, the military recognizes the rights only of conscientious objectors, those who think that all wars are immoral; it does not recognize the rights of selective conscientious objectors, those who think that one war in particular is immoral.   If you are a Catholic in the U.S. military and you wish to follow Catholic teaching on war, you are not allowed to do so.  While the military can be said to respect the religious freedom and freedom of conscience of pacifist Catholics, it cannot be said to respect the religious freedom and freedom of conscience of those Catholics who wish to adhere to just war theory.

With its refusal to recognize the rights of selective conscientious objectors, does not the U.S. military exhibit a hostility to the religious freedom of Catholics that is at least as egregious as that allegedly displayed in the HHS mandate?

It is not therefore true, as Cardinal George insists, that, prior to the HHS ruling, “the government has respected the freedom of individual conscience and institutional integrity of the many religious groups that shape society.”  If Catholics in the military have long been deprived of the right to refuse to fight in wars that their conscience and church tells them are wrong, then what Cardinal George says here is clearly not true.  Rather than being an unprecedented attack on religious freedom, the HHS mandate would seem to be business as usual.

And this is not merely a theoretical debate about hypothetical scenarios. Unlike the claim that birth control causes abortions, which is based on unverifiable speculation, we know for a fact that the U.S. military has waged unjust wars.  Some, if not most, of the wars the U.S. military has waged have failed to fulfill the criteria set forth by Catholic just war theory.  Very recently, Pope John Paul II categorized the Iraq War as an unjust war.  How many Catholic soldiers were made to fight in this war?  How many Catholic members of the military were made to violate their own church’s teaching and contribute, however indirectly, to the prosecution of this war?

And this is not just about Catholic individuals.  The Catholic church’s involvement in the military is just as institutional as its involvement in the healthcare industry.  The Catholic church has a military chaplaincy and it even has an archdiocese devoted exclusively to the U.S. military.

If being made to pay, even indirectly, for birth control is reason enough for the Catholic church to get out of the healthcare business, shouldn’t being made to participate, even indirectly, in the execution of unjust wars be reason enough for the the Catholic church to get out of the military business?  When it comes to church teaching on women’s sexuality, there is no good good enough to justify even the slightest deviation from church teaching.  With respect to church teaching on war, one must ask, is there any evil evil enough to compel the church to take its own teachings seriously and reconsider its institutional affiliation with the U.S. military?

The bishops do not seem to have (much) of a problem with Catholics conforming their consciences to President Obama’s when it comes to matters of war and peace, why should it be any different with matters of health and disease?

20 thoughts

  1. This is a truly phenomenal post, Katie. I must admit that while I have thought about the particular issue of selective conscientious objection in the past, I had never put the pieces together in this situation. I will be highly recommending this post to others!

  2. I haven’t read a better expose of the utter hypocrisy of the HHS controversy than this. I had no idea that you couldn’t selectively choose to object to a war. That’s fascinating. And it is extremely revealing that the Church remains such a (proud!) participator in military structures.

    I still think that the HHS ruling violates religious freedom, but the absolutist, black and white approach the bishops have taken to it seem especially inane now that I’ve read this. I’ll be sending this around. I wish the USCCB would come to this blog for advice.

  3. This is brilliant – so well done. I am re-reading it today, with the context of Anna Maria College disinviting Victoria Kennedy as their commencement speaker issue on my mind and heart.

    And I am ever aware of the divide between theologians and bishops and the tremendous implications of that divide.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Fran, and for your readership. Your presence on this blog is greatly appreciated. I was not aware of the issue you mention so I am now going to educate myself about it.

  4. Isn’t it significant that, at least for recent unjust wars, there hasn’t been a draft? The problem with the mandate is that it is mandated, universally; whereas Catholics in the military are all volunteers, and the circumstances in which they can conscientiously object were clear when they signed up.

    As regards institutional complicity, it is not clear to me that the chaplaincy and the military archdiocese are cooperating in evil by ministering to soldiers involved in unjust wars. Katie, are you suggesting this is a necessary truth, as if by their very nature any military ministry must be cooperating in evil? Or is it a contingent truth, such that the present Catholic chaplaincy/diocese so happen to be cooperating? If the latter, what about these ministries leads you to that conclusion? And couldn’t the Church stay in the business of ministering after addressing whatever contingent worries you had?

    1. Hey Ross,
      As to your point about the draft. Yes, that is a legitimate difference but it still doesn’t explain why the bishops don’t command Catholics to refuse to sign up for the military until they are legally afforded the right to selectively conscientiously object.

      It is true that the “mandate” (oversimplifying here) to fight only applies to Catholics in the military but couldn’t we just say that the “mandate” to pay for birth control only applies to Catholics in health care?

      And yes, you are certainly right that there are definite differences between Catholic institutional participation in healthcare and Catholic institutional participation in the military. I guess I think first of all, we as a church haven’t submitted the military archdiocese or the military chaplaincy to the type of moral scrutiny that we have Catholic hospitals. So that is the first thing we should do. Second, I think the burden of proof should fall on those who wish to argue that having a chaplaincy or archdiocese does not constitute direct or indirect participation in the evil things the military does.

      And as to your point: “couldn’t the church stay in the business of ministering…” I personally think yes, that is absolutely a possibility. My point is only, if we can’t have catholic hospitals if doing so means indirectly paying for birth control, then can we really have catholic participation in the military if doing so means indirectly or directly contributing to unjust wars? My point is one of consistency not about what I actually think.

      Personally, no, I don’t think ministering to soldiers involved in unjust wars necessarily constitutes cooperation in evil but I think it certainly can. At a minimum, I would think (just as the bishops would say about ministering to women on birth control or seeking abortions) that ministering to soldiers fighting unjust wars would require insistence that they stop fighting these wars. And I see very little evidence that that happens. Again, think of my post as being about consistency.

  5. I thought you meant because the U.S. military is the largest supplier of contraceptives in the world, and the majority of marines is Catholic.

    1. yes. that would have worked too. definitely bolsters my point.

      and is that actually true? can you provide me the source for that?

  6. The article offers a weak argument.

    The rightful authority of military action is the State. They exercise prudential judgment in such matters. And no recent military action has been condemned by the Magisterium as immoral. The Magisterium has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful.

    1. i’m not sure what you mean by “magisterium,” but pope john paul ii clearly condemned the iraq war and most of the US’ military actions violate catholic just war theory.

      and just because because something can be moral, like war, does not mean that all wars are moral. so your invocation of the distinction between intrinsic and circumstantial evils is not relevant here. for this distinction to invalidate my argument, you would have to show how the actions in afghanistan, the drone strikes in pakistan and yemen, both gulf wars, not to mention the wars in central america in the 80s, the invasion of grenada, the vietnam war, the covert bombing of cambodia which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, the overthrow of the shah, and going back to the invasion of haiti for the sake of repressing labor costs, the conquest of hawaii, etc comply with just war theory.

      good luck with that.

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