Do the Bishops Have a Case Against Obama?
Religion often comes alive in the face of persecution. Recently, Daniel Jenky, the bishop of Peoria, Ill., did not hesitate to play the persecution card in the dispute with the Obama administration over required health insurance coverage of birth control. Evoking the history of “terrible persecution” of the Church, he said: “Hitler and Stalin would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services and health care. . . . Barack Obama — with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda — now seems intent on following a similar path.” In an effort to clarify the statement, a diocese spokesperson said, “We certainly have not reached the same level of persecution. However, history teaches us to be cautious once we start down the path of limiting religious liberty.” (She did not explain just what the bishop regarded as the Church’s current “level of persecution” by the administration.)
Jenky’s remarks are only a bit more extreme than standard rhetoric from bishops and other conservative Catholics, who now routinely talk of an “attack” or “war” on religious liberty. Are things really this bad? Or are we seeing a perhaps politically motivated “tempest in a holy water fount”?
To get some perspective, I propose to take a look at the main rational arguments — as opposed to rhetorical appeals — that the bishops and their supporters put forward.
The first argument is based on the right of conscience. It agrees that all employees of a Catholic organization have a right in conscience to practice birth control, but that the organization also has a right in conscience not to pay for (or otherwise facilitate) the practice. The nub of the argument is that an organization’s not offering birth control as part of its health insurance does not take away an employee’s right to birth control; it would at most make it a bit more difficult to obtain. By contrast, the administration’s requirement that the organization offer birth control coverage does eliminate, in this case, its right not to support the practice.
This argument makes a valid point, but omits the rights of a third party: the government, which has a right (and duty) to set up rules for the common good of the nation. In some cases, this right takes precedence over the rights of conscience. The government has the right, for example, to force people to serve in wars they think are unjust or pay taxes to support activities like birth control that they think are immoral. Organized religions have, in our system, greater rights to conscientious exemption than individuals, but there is no absolute immunity that keeps a religion’s claim of conscience from being trumped by the government’s right to “provide for the general welfare.” Once we take account of the government’s right, we see that this argument does nothing to show that Catholic organizations’ rights outweigh the rights of the government in this case. [More]