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?
“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?”
I am absolutely sure the are both equally important. Then again, we always focus on one sin rather than the other one… we go step by step or little by little.
I would not generalize as “Catholic institutions”, even though I do realize the relevance on the subject. Every institution commits sins (as humans do), but the sin changes from one person/institution to another, irrespective of their religion.
Any type of freedom is about doing and not doing things. Freedom is part of the capacity to do good things and bad things. We are free to lie (even God grants us this freedom) even if we ought to tell the truth. – Now that I think about it, It is actually interesting that God provides us with more freedom than other humans do: He grants us freedom even it is means killing and destroying other people/the world/Him.
Thank you Katie for an excellent post which gets to the heart of the gospel message. Scripture is insistent on the rights of workers to just wages and on the dignity of the human person, but silent on contraception.
Catholic schools ought to be living the gospel by encouraging union membership and by paying the Living Wage.
It is a sad indictment on Catholic failings that most of our U.S. Catholic schools were once also racially segregated.
All the posturing around contraception smacks of special pleading and is a distraction from the real issues. Pope Francis has framed a much better set of priorities for the Church.
Thank you, Chris.
Most Catholic schools were NOT racially segregated, and the ones that were — in the Deep South — were so segregated at the insistence of and benefit for both whites and blacks. You couldn’t have integrated Catholic schools where the rest of society was segregated. The threat to black lives would have been tremendous.
Of course, various Archbishops later DID desegregate Catholic shools (in the 1950’s and 1960’s) when the envirnoment was more open. These bishops would threaten recalcitrants with excommunication, barring them from attending Church services including weddings/funerals of family and friends, and burial in Catholic cemeteries. The New York Times endorsed these penalties for Catholics who obstructed desgregation efforts.
I wonder if so-called Catholic liberals and The Times will support similar measures for Catholics working in league with abortionists and the abortion lobby ?
i hate to break it to you, but this is wildly untrue:
LCin NJ, have you heard of the Second Amendment? If you want government forcing birth, you’re not a conservative. You’re a big government liberal, who wants more intrusive government. If you’re not supporting the “abortion lobby,” you’re supporting a homicide investigation for every miscarriage. Government has to bring in a medical examiner to determine cause of death. There has to be a burial. There’s no statute of limitation on murder. Anyone, at anytime, can later claim that a woman who had a miscarriage engaged in behavior which led to the death of her unborn child. Authorities have to investigate.
I love it! This is one of the things I’m talking about when I say I “don’t like” rights language. I think it’s limits our scope and concept of what’s important. Therefore the emphasis on rights and “freedom from” encourages people/institutions to think about themselves in individualistic ways. Well, that and this kind of moral inertia.
Vigorous and well argued.
OT, an economist I esteem very greatly, Warren Mosler, @wbmosler argues cogently that “As a matter of economics and public purpose it is counter productive for health care to be a marginal cost of production.”
A business’ success or failure should be based on their core competencies, not on the health (or lack of a few workers).
IMHO, Mosler’s ideas on health care are worth a look.
Gah, this is awesome.
Though I do feel there are some strong points made by those concerned for religious freedom, the discourse itself is thoroughly secular. As you said (and other commenters noted) the assertion that a religious institution should be exempt based on a religious paradigm beckons an altogether more important conversation: if an institution is “Christian,” what does it mean to engage in the world? What’s missing from the answer, if one is ever given, is exactly what you pointed out: total inconsistency.
Hard to believe someone this ignorant can be a theology professor. Then again, nobody said theologians actually do anything of substance except offer opinions on things they are not qualified to talk about.
You’re right: “nobody” in human history has ever said that theologians do anything of substance.
I guess that’s why the church decided not to recognize Thomas Aquinas as a saint or declare him a doctor of the Church. They were like: “should we make this dude a doctor of the church?” And then someone was like: “He a theologian and nobody thinks they actually do anything of substance so we better not.” And so the first guy was like “you’re right, dude, good call.”
I guess that’s also why at the Second Vatican Council they were like: “should we change church teaching about religious freedom partially in response to the arguments made by theologians like John Courtney Murray?” and the bishops were like: “dude, he’s a THEOLOGIAN! He’s has no clue what he’s talking about.” And then they were like: “Let’s continue insisting that there is no right to religious freedom.”
LCinNJ, learn the difference between a trillion and a billion.
“5 U.S. Banks Each Have More Than 40 Trillion Dollars In Exposure To Derivatives.”
To put $200 trillion in perspective, annual U.S. GDP is around $17 trillion. Social Security’s Trust fund is around $2.3 trillion. We blew at least $6 trillion in the Middle East occupations.
Per the “zerohedge” link above, Wall Street and elites are using the FDIC to “socialize” their derivative risk onto the taxpayers. Almost none of the $200 trillion “trickles down,” into the real economy. It’s mostly on interest rate swaps and credit derivative swaps, nothing goes into the real economy that makes stuff or into new technologies.