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How Obama’s Catholic Opponents Take Religious Liberty a Step Too Far

March 18, 2012

According to the National Catholic Reporter, the Obama administration has signaled a willingness to make additional accommodations to religious organizations that object to providing insurance coverage for contraception.  Also encouraging, the same article reports that the U.S. bishops’ conference has “dialed back its vehement opposition” to the administration.

Meanwhile, the conservative Catholic blogosphere has not relented one bit from its anti-Obama hysteria.  To take a representative example, in his post on the new accommodations, Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin insists that the provisions do not go far enough.  Nobody, Akin writes

should be required to pay for abortion and contraceptive services against their will.  Religious freedom matters for everybody, not just the minimum number that the Obama administration thinks it must grant religious freedom to.

It is not clear who, exactly, Akin has in mind when he says that no one should have to pay for abortion and contraceptive services “against their will.”  Perhaps by dropping the term “abortion” into this sentence, Akin hopes to remind Protestant readers that they too oppose abortion.  And perhaps he has a point: if the mandate requires insurance policies to include abortifacients, then the debate should have a much broader resonance.  My sense, however, is that what Akin has in mind is what the bishops had in mind in their second statement to the White House: which is that nothing short of a total rescission of the mandate would be satisfactory.

It seems to me that the bishops and Akin are taking the rhetoric of religious liberty a step too far.  It is one thing for the Church to insist that religious institutions ought to be allowed to opt out of the mandate; it is quite another for the Church to demand a total rescission. (Just as it is one thing for a vegetarian to refrain from eating meat at a wedding and another for her to demand that no wedding guest be served meat.)  The latter argument does not hinge on the question of religious liberty but on the tension between the moral framework of a secular, liberal society and the moral framework of the Catholic Church.  What Akin and the bishops want is for the framework of the Church to prevail — for surely Akin isn’t arguing that anyone should be allowed to be exempted from a government mandate for any reason, which would amount to an extreme form of libertarianism (in which case, I have moral objections to paying taxes). Rather, due to the specifically Catholic moral framework of his analysis, Akin presumably takes the HHS ruling to be an unjust law and therefore not binding. So the issue isn’t so much religious liberty as it is the wrongness within a Catholic moral framework — a framework rejected by liberal individualism — of mandating that any institution cover contraception. It is, at best, muddled thinking and, at worst, disingenuous not to acknowledge this.

Is the Church ready to once again take up the cause of the 19th century popes and mount a broader critique of liberalism?  I doubt it. Of course, it is true that it is not possible for the state to be “neutral” with respect to human sexuality and that what matters is therefore not tolerance, but truth.  This is a sound argument and one that I wish Fr. Barron, Arbishop Nolan, and others would make.  Still, the religious liberty argument is much more of a crowd pleaser in an American political context.  Plus, it saves the Church the trouble of providing the public with a compelling rationale for its position on contraception.

Speaking of which, here is my challenge to Catholic opponents of Obama: if you are going to overstep the bounds of the religious liberty issue and insist the Obama administration rescind the HHS mandate altogether, please explain in terms accessible to anyone (not just Catholics) why it is that contraception is such a grave moral evil.

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