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The US Bishops are standing firm against the HHS Mandate, but they could say more

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 18, 2013

In addition to our news story on the American bishops’ continued opposition to the HHS Mandate, we also have the full text of yesterday’s letter from Cardinal Timothy Dolan to his brother bishops on this subject. At the heart of the bishops’ concerns are three important points, but there are at least two more points which will eventually need to be made.

The Mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services imposes a legal obligation on most employers to provide health insurance coverage for abortion, sterilization and contraception to their employees. After many citizens and groups protested this Mandate, and numerous employers challenged it in court, the HHS claimed to issue an “accommodation”. But the American bishops have rightly concluded that this so-called accommodation fails to address any of the substantive concerns. That conclusion rests on three objections.

First, the Mandate continues to diminish the very concept of religion by restricting it to organizations which engage directly and more or less exclusively in religious instruction or religious worship. Second, it therefore leaves the Church’s social ministries with no relief from the crippling fines that will be imposed for failure to comply with the law. And third, it refuses to recognize that for-profit entities can possibly be religiously motivated in any way whatsoever, leaving them also subject to the depredations of the law.

I should note at least in passing that Cardinal Dolan also expressed considerable annoyance at the Catholic Health Association which, by approving the mandate, has created considerable confusion among Catholics as to the seriousness of the moral problems at stake. This significant issue of internal Church discipline will, if authentic renewal continues, eventually be effectively addressed. But what concerns me in this discussion, as I mentioned, is that there is much more that could and should be said about the central moral issues themselves.

Weak and Strong Arguments

The bishops are fighting this battle on grounds of religious liberty and the rights of conscience. This is not a bad thing, and it may well be the best strategy if such matters still have political traction, but it is a relatively weak strategy philosophically. Religion is so splintered nowadays, and individual consciences are formed so disparately in our weak moral culture, that there no longer seems to be a clear basis for according exemptions to religion or conscience in matters relating to the common good. Of course, there is little consensus about the nature of the common good either. But the conflict inevitably calls to mind a significant question which amounts to a significant doubt: Faced by a blanket claim for religious liberty and conscience rights, how can any representative of contemporary American culture do anything but quail at the absurdities this must necessarily entail?

For example, must we also permit free rein to the adherents of a religion which practices human sacrifice? Must we exempt from traffic laws any citizen who conscientiously objects to observing them? Where do such things end?

More importantly, where do such things begin? I do not deny that there is considerable history and legal precedent on the side of these claims, left over from a saner and more metaphysical age, which is why emphasizing them may be the best strategy. But it is a difficult strategy to defend against any conception of the common good without being willing to assert two fundamental truths: (1) Not all religions are equally true, and (2) Not all consciences are equally well-formed. Sooner or later, all intrinsically moral political questions surrounding the common good must come down to the natural law, which has—as a matter of both faith and history—been enormously clarified by Christian Revelation. This is where “such things begin”. Their serious consideration may be harder to stimulate today than ideas of rights and liberties but, in terms of long term social health, Revelation and the natural law are far more necessary. This is the first point.

The second point is more pragmatic. The strategy of the Federal government has been to appear to respect conscience by requiring support of immoral practices only through corporate insurance programs. This strategy was very deliberately chosen to obscure the real issue, which is the immoral coercion of real persons. The government’s attempt to frame the Mandate in terms of organizations, corporations, and companies—entities which have no souls—is nothing but political sleight-of-hand, a clever use of misdirection. Organizations, corporations, companies: All are made up of persons, all seek to enhance and extend the operations of persons, and all involve their members as moral actors by virtue of that extension. Their failings, crimes and sins are the work of real people. The HHS Mandate is not primarily an issue of corporate law. It touches the moral obligations of every man, woman and child in America.

Again, I grant that emphasizing these two additional points may not represent the best strategy for the bishops as they seek to challenge the HHS Mandate in the courts. But these points are central to a proper understanding of the issues at stake. They are also central to the new evangelization of a nation which is gradually embracing a materialist totalitarianism, for we are presently crafting a system that will end by accommodating only those who already have the power to accommodate themselves.

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  • Posted by: MB - Sep. 27, 2013 9:15 AM ET USA

    I believe we make a mistake by not including other reasons to oppose the mandate,e.g. there is a natural method of family planning that is 99.5 method effective (cf www.fertilitycare.org); the World heath Organization still classifies some pills as class one carcinogenics; other research from Lionel Tiger et al. showing negative effects of the pill; etc. We are being asked to provide what other health experts call dangerous and detrimental. It could be another point of attack

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