Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The HHS Whitewash and the Obliteration of Moral Distinctions

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 01, 2012

When I criticized Maureen Dowd’s take on the American bishops’ opposition to the HHS Mandate (as did Bishop John Wester a day later), I posed a number of questions. One of them was this: If, as a Gallup Poll cited by Dowd suggests, 82% of Catholics think that birth control is morally acceptable; and if, as Dowd herself insists without evidence, the American bishops oppose the HHS Mandate only because they want to stop women from using contraception (in effect, using Dowd’s language, forcing them to wear chastity belts); then how does Dowd explain the much higher percentage of Catholics who support the bishops in their opposition to the Mandate?

Yesterday, a Quinnipiac poll revealed that 51% of Catholics in New York support the lawsuit filed by some bishops against the Mandate. If we suppose that 82% of Catholics in New York believe contraception is moral and that every one of the other 18% favors the episcopal lawsuit, then this means that a whopping one-third of Catholics who morally approve of contraception nonetheless support the bishops’ opposition to the Mandate.

Now the most obvious explanation for this is the one Dowd misses: There is a substantive moral difference between permitting a particular elective practice and forcing everybody to participate in the funding of that practice. One has to be pretty far gone morally to fail to see this distinction. To fail to see it, one must argue something very much like the following:

  1. Practice X is a morally good personal decision.
  2. Therefore, those who embrace Practice X promote the common good.
  3. Therefore, everyone should contribute to the costs of Practice X.
  4. Therefore, anyone who believes Practice X to be immoral should be coerced into paying a share of the costs.

This line of thought includes no fewer than four logical leaps. It begins with the assumption that there can be no legitimate disagreement concerning the value of Practice X. It leaps from that assumption to a further assumption about the common good, and from this second assumption to a third, that the cost of whatever contributes to the common good should be shared by all, and finally from this third assumption to a fourth—that coercion is warranted for those who disagree.

Now, it may be morally good for me to refrain from eating meat on Fridays, but it does not follow that this personal decision is a component of the common good. Or my decision to publicly encourage prayer and penance may well contribute to the common good, but it does not follow that everyone is obligated to share the costs I incur in my crusade. Or finally, it may well be a wonderful thing that those who appreciate my efforts wish to support them financially, but it does not follow that those who think my efforts wrongheaded should be forced to do the same.

But what can possibly cause an otherwise intelligent person to fail to miss the rather obvious disconnections in this kind of argument—to miss them so completely as to accuse those who have not missed them of lying about their motives, of pursuing a secret and essentially non-rational agenda? One cannot answer this in every case, of course, but those who understand a little of the interplay between spirituality and psychology can offer at least one very common cause.

Evil habits darken the intellect, but they do something more as well. As Saint John warned near the beginning of his Gospel, “[E]very one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (3:20). This hatred of the light causes those who do evil to insist upon the acceptance and even the promotion of evil on an ever-widening scale. The reason is that anything less allows light to seep in, allows the possibility that the true nature of their actions might be exposed. Psychologically, those committed to evil almost invariably act instinctively in this way. They proceed from self-justification, to encouraging others to embrace the same evil, to silencing those who denounce it as evil, to compelling those who oppose the evil to publicly recognize its good and contribute to its further establishment.

I grant that most people are probably unaware of the pattern they are following. As I said, evil habits darken the intellect. Where our passions are involved, we tend not to think very clearly. It is also true that some who fall into evil habits are not so generally involved in a rebellion against God as others. These will still be able to make significant moral distinctions. They may even recognize that what they are doing is not so good, even though they are not prepared to make the sacrifice to turn away from it. And there you have your top third (if not more) among those who practice contraception.

But those who lead the charge against the light are determined to live publicly according to their own immoral inclinations and yet still maintain a place of honor in society. Moreover, this is especially true among Catholics who commit themselves to evil while still wishing to retain a place of honor in the Church. The moral atmosphere of both Church and society must be reversed. Black must be made white. Those who can still see the difference must be neutralized. And the best way to do this? First, exert strong cultural pressure to make them pretend. And then make them pay for the whitewash.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Jun. 02, 2012 12:06 PM ET USA

    What concerns me is that according to USCCB financial statements, in 2009 the Catholic Church in America accepted $58 million in federal funds (Gov't contracts & grant revenue). Is there some way we can wean the American Church from federal largesse and regain our integrity? Perhaps Catholics would be more generous if they knew that the Church would stand up on its own. I am afraid that we are too beholden to the gov't.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jun. 02, 2012 10:10 AM ET USA

    "Moreover, this is especially true among Catholics who commit themselves to evil while still wishing to retain a place of honor in the Church." But THIS IS ALLOWED BY OUR BISHOPS. This is merely a matter of connecting the dots. The GOVERNMENT DOES NOT do this. Let us all be GOOD CATHOLICS and call a spade a spade, or as the Sacred Scripture puts it, "call good good and evil evil."

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Jun. 01, 2012 6:05 PM ET USA

    This new moral atmosphere must start with us as individual Catholics. Eventually I think enough people will simply get sick of what all this evil does to them both individually and socially and start to stand against it. We can't wait on politicians or prelates to start though.