Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

A 'conscience clause' is not enough

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 02, 2011

No sensible American should have been surprised by the announcement that Obamacare will require subsidies for contraception in every health-care insurance program. From the moment he was sworn in to office—in fact, even before—President Barack Obama has made it clear that he will promote the Planned Parenthood agenda at all costs.

So this week the point has been underscored again. While lawmakers on Capitol Hill try to summon up the political will to question runaway entitlement programs, the Obama administration adds one more: Young women are entitled to their birth-control pills.

The new policy includes just the shadow of a “conscience clause,” in an obvious bid to pre-empt criticism from religious institutions that oppose contraception—in other words, to state matters simply, from the Catholic Church. But the religious exemption is defined so narrowly that it would apply only to an institution that was run by Catholics, for Catholics, for the purpose of fostering Catholicism—that is, a Catholic institution that had no impact on the outside world.

This “religious exemption” would not apply to Catholic hospitals, which employ non-Catholic doctors, nurses, and staff. It would not apply to Catholics schools with non-Catholic students and teachers. It would not apply to Catholic charitable agencies that serve the poor whether or not they are Catholic. In an admirably strong statement protesting the policy on behalf of the US bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo asked:

 Could the federal government possibly intend to pressure Catholic institutions to cease providing health care, education and charitable services to the general public?

The question is disturbing in itself. But to sharpen the point, let me add another:

What if the answer is Yes?

The US bishops’ conference will now flex its lobbying muscles in a bid to amend the Obamacare policy, to provide a more realistic “conscience clause.” If it is successful—a big “if”—this effort might ensure that Church-run schools, hospitals, and charitable agencies are not forced to support a grave moral wrong. But even if the bishops’ conference were to win that political battle, could we really classify it as a victory?

Remember that the Obamacare policy applies not only to Catholic institutions, but also to Catholic individuals. Every Catholic who works for a secular institution in the health-care field would be bound by this new mandate. Every Catholic who pays monthly premiums for health-care insurance would be forced to subsidize contraception. For that matter, non-Catholics who recognize the moral argument against contraception would be under the same legal obligation. Even if the policy could somehow be amended to exempt all Catholics, it would still be wrong. “Those who sponsor, purchase and issue health plans should not be forced to violate their deeply held moral and religious convictions,” Cardinal DiNardo argued. The point cannot be rebutted by anyone who respects the conscience of the individual.

Unfortunately, with each passing year our society shows less and less tolerance for the individual conscience. An overweening government requires Christians to accept the prevailing moral norms even when they violate the principles of Christian morality, and powerful private institutions only add to the pressure.

Consider the restrictions that a Catholic—and especially a young Catholic—now faces on the job market. (I write from the perspective of a Catholic. But the same problems apply, with more or less equal force, to others who share the Catholic perspective on these moral issues.)

  • A Catholic who cannot in good conscience sign the “marriage” certificate of two homosexual lovers may be unable to serve as town clerk in states like that recognize same-sex marriage.
  • A Catholic pharmacist who refuses to dispense abortifacient pills may not be allowed to continue his practice, where law requires him to provide customers with the “morning-after” pill (not to mention ordinary contraceptive pills, which have abortifacient properties).
  • A Catholic innkeeper who declines to play host to the celebration of homosexual unions may be stripped of his license to take paying guests.
  • A Catholic medical student who objects to involvement in abortion or sterilization may find that only a few hospitals will consider him as an applicant for residency or internship.
  • A Catholic social worker who recognizes the injustice of placing foster children in homosexual households will be unable to find work in a state-funded adoption agency.
  • A Catholic police officer can lose his job if he hesitates to arrest someone seeking to dissuade a young woman from entering an abortion clinic.
  • A Catholic psychiatrist who clings to the age-old understanding that homosexuality is a disorder may be blackballed by his colleagues, ridiculed by the media, and possibly deprived of his professional accreditation.
  • And now a Catholic clerk who objects to cutting checks for birth-control pills will be unable to work at any American health-insurance company.

All of the above might be classified as forms of job discrimination: Catholics Need Not Apply. But the pressure is mounting, and Catholics are being discouraged from entry into more and more jobs—especially in the fields where the Church has been most active, the fields of health, education, and welfare. It is vitally important for American Catholics to recognize the trend and reverse it, before the word “discrimination” is too mild to describe the government’s hostility.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - May. 20, 2017 3:56 PM ET USA

    71% of Venezuelans are Catholic and 17% are Evangelical Christians. I don't think that the Pope's involvement in this case would put Catholics at risk. Maduro himself was raised a Catholic, although in 2012 it was reported that he was a follower of Indian guru Sai Baba [source: Wikipedia]

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - May. 20, 2017 10:51 AM ET USA

    Silence is certainly not the answer. But given the dire nature of the situation, anything coming from the Pope could put Catholics at mortal risk. No? Recognizing such potentiality, seems prudent the Pope uses time before responding. You know, there is much done in response to such situations hidden from us. Let's all exercise the virtue of Hope here.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - May. 19, 2017 6:48 PM ET USA

    This part of the essay says it all: "the Pontiff’s reluctance to take a strong stand may have been influenced by his own political preferences. 'It’s very hard for the pope to blame Venezuela’s problems on the tyranny of Mammon, financial speculation, free trade agreements, arms-dealers, nefarious “neoliberals," or any of his usual list of suspects.'" Only the usual list of suspects is capable of "rigidness" and evil intentions, I guess. Any slack should be directed only to socialists.

  • Posted by: Toddyo - May. 18, 2017 5:33 PM ET USA

    After watching the press conference with President Trump and Nobel Prize winning President of Colombia, it's heartening to see they have a real concern for Venezuela and its fall into failed socialism.

  • Posted by: Ken - May. 18, 2017 4:17 PM ET USA

    "Part of the opposition does not want this." Would that be the "part" that is starving?

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 18, 2017 4:05 PM ET USA

    Why is the silence of Pope Francis a problem? If he speaks his mind, it will further demoralize the Catholic opposition. His sympathies reside with the socialist dictators of South America. Does anyone expect him to change his mind about socialism? He has reminded us several times that he believes that Marxists and Communists can be good people whose heart is in the right place… just ask the Jesuit General, Sosa. Obviously, all problems have been caused by the Bush, and now made worse by Trump.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - May. 18, 2017 3:12 PM ET USA

    I understand why the word communism has never passed the Pope's lips, Phil, but I did expect you to mention it at least in passing.