A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Lack of Conscience in the HHS Conscience Clause

Michael Sean Winters is a Catholic and a self-proclaimed liberal Democrat, who has been a supporter of President Obama. He is angry and feeling betrayed by the president on his recent decision to mandate that religiously affiliated institutions provide contraceptive coverage in their health care plans. Winters writes the following:

President Barack Obama lost my vote yesterday when he declined to expand the exceedingly narrow conscience exemptions proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services. The issue of conscience protections is so foundational, I do not see how I ever could, in good conscience, vote for this man again.

I do not come at this issue as a Catholic special pleader, who wants only to protect my own, although it was a little bracing to realize that the president’s decision yesterday essentially told us, as Catholics, that there is no room in this great country of ours for the institutions our Church has built over the years to be Catholic in ways that are important to us. Nor, frankly, do I come at the issue as an anti-contraception zealot: I understand that many people, and good Catholics too, reach different conclusions on the matter although I must say that Humanae Vitae in its entirety reads better, and more presciently, every year.

No, I come at this issue as a liberal and a Democrat and as someone who, until yesterday, generally supported the President, as someone who saw in his vision of America a greater concern for each other, a less mean-spirited culture, someone who could, and did, remind the nation that we are our brothers' keeper, that liberalism has a long vocation in this country of promoting freedom and protecting the interests of the average person against the combined power of the rich, and that we should learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. I defended the University of Notre Dame for honoring this man, and my heart was warmed when President Obama said at Notre Dame: "we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity -- diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief. In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family."

I accuse you, Mr. President, of dishonoring your own vision by this shameful decision.

As a Protestant, I am not opposed to most forms of birth control, but the current administration has opened up a hornets' nest on this one. The Catholic Church's position on contraception is a non-negotiable in Catholic moral theology and the Catholic leadership will not acquiesce on this one; and I would be surprised if Pope Benedict does not address the matter with instructions for Catholic bishops in America as to how they are to respond. And the fact that many Catholics personally use birth control is not the issue- the issue is the state stepping on what is a matter of deep conscience for millions of Christians in America and a central teaching in Catholic moral theology (of course, arguments from conscience are not without their problems).

I have often said that while the time honored idea of separation of church and state is in some ways an obtusely problematic idea, nevertheless, there are two fundamental assumptions behind the notion: First, that on the one side there will be no state-sponsored church; and second, and on the other side, the government is incompetent when it comes to understanding religion and religious practices.

In its decision to force the Catholic Church to provide contraceptive services in their health care plans, the Obama Administration has clearly demonstrated the latter. There will be those who will now demagogue this issue and hysterically argue that President Obama wants to take away everyone's religious freedom. Such an argument is, of course, nonsense. Nevertheless, it is disturbing that a central moral tenet of a Christian Church has been stepped on by the state in favor of a particular political agenda. Every Christian, regardless of their views on birth control, should be concerned about this decision.

Having said that, I also maintain that the church must worry much less about what the state does and be more concerned about being faithful to its own witness in the world. Therefore, the first issue for me is not to influence the state to do the church's bidding, but to be a faithful church regardless of what the state mandates and be willing to suffer the consequences. In other words, we must stand alongside the Apostles Peter and John who said to the authorities, "We must listen to God rather than you" (Acts 4:19-20).

In this situation, I am confident that the Catholic Church will do the same. At least I hope they do.

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