There has been no shortage of commentary and opinion about the HHS rule that would require religiously affiliated charities, universities, and hospitals to provide health insurance plans to their employees that include contraceptives and abortifacients free of charge to their plan enrollees.
The most vocal critic of this rule has been the Catholic church, which took the step of distributing and reading a very critical letter of this policy from the pulpit, and stating firmly that the Church cannot and will not comply with this law. The basis of this objection is that such a regulation would compel the Church to purchase something which is repugnant to its stated doctrine which has been it’s doctrine for centuries, and by its very nature, makes it complicit in something that it regards as a sin.
This predictably drew criticism ranging from the sublime to the idiotic, depending upon the personal prejudices of the critic. One such criticism is that “the Church is out of touch with its own followers, since 98% of Catholic women use birth control.” Putting aside the source and veracity of the statistic (including the reason for gathering the data and the methodology used in doing so), it misses a fundamental point about Catholicism: It is not a democracy. This is a point not considered by those who spend a great deal of time criticising religion without understanding it. At the heart of judeo-christian philosophy is the idea that man is an imperfect creature that while cast in the image of his creator is none the less prone to sin. The Church exists to address this condition, and to offer correction and guidance in overcoming sin. It could no more abdicate this duty and adopt the belief that since a majority of its female parishioners take birth control, that it must be correct any more than a responsible parent could conclude that ice cream and cake would make an excellent breakfast for their children simply because it is what the children would make for themselves if given the opportunity.
Of course, my favorite outburst so far was from a colleague in the blogging world who has some very strong feelings on the subject:
Nothing is being imposed. On the contrary, a government that should be ignoring ignorant religious doctrine in favor of modern science is ACCOMMODATING the Catholic church with a one to two year waiting period to figure out how both desires can be served: the desire to maintain the religious prohibition and the desire to get women the contraceptives they want.
Did you get that? Nothing is being imposed…except for a rule that requires the Church to be complicit in behavior it finds abhorrent for religious reasons. And since he believes the doctrine to be “ignorant”, the government obviously should be ignoring it, and implementing it NOW. Why is the doctrine “ignorant”? Because it ignores “modern science”. But that phrase in and of itself implies an important truth: that science is not static. Anyone who has made an even semi-serious study of the history of science knows that its “truths” often come with an expiration date. After all, it was once modern scientific fact that the earth was flat, that the planets revolved around it, that life spontaneously generated, and that phlogiston was present in everything that was flammable and was release when those materials were burned. Illnesses were caused by bad humors that could be excised by bleeding the patient. Species developed unique characteristics because they willed it to be so.
Now I’m not a Luddite, and I am grateful for what man’s intelligence has drawn from scientific inquiry and experimentation. Whether it is antibiotics, materials sciences, or harnessing the power of numbers and revolutionizing everything in our lives by applying the binary paradigm of digitization, our lives are better for the application of science. But it is not sustenance for the soul, nor should it ever be used as a cudgel to beat the submission of one’s conscience into conformity with the best laid plans of technocrats.
The third argument that has been deployed against the religious resistance to this regulation is the argument that contraceptives are a “right”. It is the most facially compelling argument, as long as one doesn’t dwell too much on it, because doing so requires the hearer to define what is a right, and why contraceptives fit the definition, and then the implications of such a statement.
What is the origin of this “right”? Does a man or a woman in a state of nature have a right to contraceptives that are “free”? Of course not. This “right” is only conditioned upon the government being beneficent with other people’s money, which is the essence of the modern state’s beneficence. That recognized, this “right” is nothing of the sort, and is at best, a privilege, which is subject to revocation by the same government which conferred it in the first place.
That said, there are true rights at stake, and it very much IS a First Amendment issue. I have read the assertions that freedom of religion or the free exercise clause is not implicated in this scenario, because the Church chose to provide medical services, education, and charitable assistance to those who are not members of the Church, and that in doing so, they have “intruded” on the territory of the secular world, and should therefore be subject to its mandates. This is a seductive rationale, especially for those who are know nothing of Christianity, or are hostile to it, because they are incapable of seeing the provision of medical care, of providing an education, or of providing charitable assistance to the needy as the very expression of that faith, and in keeping with the example set by Christ himself, and consistent with his commandments to the individual believers, and their corporate bodies. These activities are undertaken as ministries, and to be the face and works of Christ to a world which Christians believe need him. Those who believe that this is not about the practice of religion fail to see that these are the works commanded by a savior who knew that not all who received what he had to give would be changed, but that did not and should not change the will and desire to give anyway. Christianity is not a religion that can be practiced within the walls of the church alone; it is not something that gets turned on at 9 am Sunday morning, and turned off again when you leave the parking lot. There is, however, another nuanced point that is being ignored in this controversy. This regulation offends a right that is fundamental to every right recognized and guaranteed in the First Amendment: The right of conscience.
If man does not possess the right of conscience, then he is not free to speak as he pleases. If he does not possess the right to report the events that he wishes to report on. If he does not possess the right of conscience, then he does not possess the right to worship as he pleases, or not at all if that is what he would chose. If he does not have the right of conscience, then he has no right to assemble with those who share his beliefs. If he has no right of conscience, he does not have the right to bring his complaints to the government. He who has no right of conscience does not have these rights, his very thoughts, which are also necessary to these rights, are subject not to him, but to the state which so enlists him into its service.
I know that it is not a subject often discussed these days, and that worship of the state while pretending at neutrality is much more in vogue than the free exercise of religion, but this freedom of conscience was recognized by the men responsible for limiting the power of government with respect to the exercise of religion, including Thomas Jefferson, who recognized that religion was necessary for society as a source of morals, but that it was dangerous to have conditions that would allow one sect to have favor and power over the others.
The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.
The fact is the federal government is trying to force Christian religious institutions to compromise their beliefs as they practice their faith in various ministries that use church members and non-church members alike in the service of the God they subscribe to. This suborns their conscience, and enslaves it to the desire of government to provide a product that has been speciously and facetiously referred to repeatedly as a “right”, with the apparent belief that the very real rights of conscience and free exercise of religion must yield to a privilege that will be afforded only as long as the state desires to compel others to provide it. Whether or not you are a person of faith, and whether or not you have any respect or love for the Catholic or any other church, you are a fool not to see that if the right of conscience central to the exercise of enumerated rights must give way to the dictates and desires of the federal government, then NO enumerated right is safe, and “We the People” are little more than “We the Serfs”.