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The HHS Ruling Strikes a More Appropriate Balance

February 11, 2012

As a modification to last week’s post, in which I agreed with Noah Millman that there is an inherent tension between Catholicism and the secular state, I should add that I am by no means convinced that outright conflict between church and state is inevitable.

The initial HHS ruling forced Catholic institutions to violate Church teaching and, as a result, progressive Catholics (including me) had no choice but to withdraw support for Obama. In an outright conflict between Church and state, no serious Catholic can afford to be on the wrong side. Fortunately, the administration has signaled that it is willing to compromise by placing responsibility for access to contraceptives on insurance companies, which will be required to provide coverage for employees of Catholic institutions free of charge. This strikes me as a much more appropriate balance between competing liberty interests.

Of course, from a Catholic perspective – not to be confused with what Rod Dreher wrongly takes to be a Catholic perspective – contraception is a moral issue, and not a narrowly religious issue. The Church teaches that the use of contraceptives violates natural law, which can in principle be known by everyone and has nothing to do with divine revelation. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the Bishops are pushing for conscience protection for employers, schools, nonprofits and other stakeholders. Of course, the fact of the matter is that very few — if any — of these stakeholders oppose contraception. While it may in principle be true that anyone can know through the use of his or her reason that contraception is immoral, in reality only a small subset of Catholics seem capable of this. I, for one, have read countless apologetic works, including Janet Smith’s highly acclaimed anthology “Why Humanae Vitae was Right,” and continue to find the natural law argument unpersuasive (though I do think the Church raises important concerns).

The other issue with the Obama compromise is that it seems to simply shuffle money around. As Sarah Kliff points out, insurers will in all likelihood raise premiums in order to cover the add cost of providing “free” contraception. Catholic institutions will, in turn, end up paying these premiums. So in a roundabout way, they are still footing the bill.

While not ideal, I think this arrangement is nevertheless compatible with Catholic morality. After all, the Church distinguishes between formal (i.e. intentional) and material cooperation with evil. Paying for an insurance premium that in turn is used to pay for contraception looks to me like mediate material cooperation, which Ascension Health defines as any instance in which “the cooperator participates in circumstances that are not essential to the commission of an action, such that the action could occur even without this cooperation” and which can in some cases be justified. Really, it is no different from the situation any Catholic who receives health insurance from an employer is in. In order to receive coverage, I as a Catholic pay into a large pot of money, some of which is used to provide coverage for contraceptives. The HHS ruling “forces” me to do this insofar as it forces my employer to cover contraceptives. From that standpoint, the ruling makes a bad situation worse. However, in reality, even without the ruling, the vast majority of employers cover contraception, so, unless I am going to restrict myself to working for a private Catholic high school or Catholic Charities, there is no way to avoid this predicament. I am “forced,” not by the state but by the free market (if you will) to indirectly pay for contraception. (Conservatives generally fail to realize that private institutions can be just as coercive as public institutions.)

The only lasting solution I can see to the broader issue is for the Church to get into the health insurance business and compete with employer provided health insurance. Might not be a bad idea.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob permalink
    February 12, 2012 9:29 am

    You’re a weakling. Please, don’t try to speak for the church.

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    February 12, 2012 11:02 am

    Bob, next time please make a substantive point if you’re going to comment on this blog. My tolerance for trolling is limited.

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