Sunday, April 24, 2016

What Is With the U.S. Bishops and Religious Liberty?

By Paula Ruddy

Are the bishops worried about religious liberty or about women using contraceptives? Being honest about this is tremendously important. The bishops’ moral authority is at stake as well as Catholic respect as citizens for the U.S. legal system. A nation’s legal system is only as strong as the people’s respect for it. We cannot afford the U.S. bishops’ tearing down the rule of law.

The case of Catholic non-profits before the Supreme Court illustrates the problem. Catholic bishops teach that the use of contraceptives is morally wrong. The U.S government leaves the decision about personal morality to individuals. It wants insurance companies who provide health care insurance through employers to make it free and easy to get contraceptives for those women employees who want them because reproduction is a factor in women’s health care.

Churches are exempt and don’t have to cover contraception for their employees. But Catholic non-profits – hospitals, social welfare agencies, and nursing homes – employ lots of women, Catholic and not Catholic, and they want to be exempt from offering coverage too. The government offered an accommodation. Their employees would still get coverage but the religious non-profits would not have to pay, arrange for, or implement. All they would have to do is notify the government or the insurer of opt-out.

The U.S. bishops have opposed the government all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court has to decide whether the free exercise of religion of the Catholics who run the non-profits is “substantially burdened” by the government’s requirement to notify them in accepting the accommodation.

Although the insurance coverage doesn’t require any woman to use contraceptives, it does make it free and easy for them to use them if they want. I think that is the point of the U.S. bishops’ opposition. They do not want to make it free and easy for women, Catholic or not, to use contraceptives. So it isn’t about the government forcing Catholics to do something against their religion, it is about preventing women from the free and easy use of contraceptives.

If the bishops valued liberty, they would honor the free consciences of women on the issue of their family planning. Instead they are interested in coercive prevention and getting the U.S. government to do the job. Positioning themselves as victims of religious intolerance is not honest. The dishonesty of it it destroys the moral authority of the bishops in the eyes of Catholics and all our fellow citizens. The Catholic bishops should pull the plug on the religious liberty campaign immediately.

But why do the bishops care so much about contraceptives that they are willing to do so much harm to prevent women from using them? I think they are dismayed by the sexual freedoms the U.S. government has recognized in the last 50 years and they are worried about the Catholic family. From the use of contraception in the 1960’s to gay marriage in 2015, one after another laws controlling sexual practices, reproduction, and marriage have been overturned in the U.S. The bishops may believe that people’s attitudes toward family is affected by the use of contraceptives. They may believe it is harder for Catholic families to raise their children within the boundaries of Catholic sexual morality in the sexually permissive contemporary culture.

If the Catholic family is the bishops’ concern, instead of tearing down respect for the U.S. legal system, they should ask three hard questions:

• How can we strengthen the Catholic family to internalize moral standards so they do not need the coercion of law? Legality is not a sufficient standard for morality.

• How shall we re-think our moral teaching on sexual practice so that it makes sense to Catholic families to live by? This is not accommodation to secularism. It is about being responsible.

• How do we partner with our fellow citizens, religious and secular, to build a mainstream culture of responsibility and healthy family living? This would require Catholic bishops to learn from the rest of society how to relate productively with people who think differently from them.

There is no time to lose in stopping the religious liberty campaign and asking the right questions.

Related Off-site Link:
Nondiscrimination Laws Merit Church Support – Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler (National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2016).

See also the previous PCV posts:
What is This Furor About Religious Liberty?
Fortnight of Freedom: Hypocrisy of the U.S. Bishops
Your Fist – My Nose
Quote of the Day – June 4, 2012


  1. This is a straw man argument. The so called "accommodation" still requires formal cooperation in evil and your post doesn't address this.

  2. James, thanks. I'm saying religious liberty is the straw man. We could do the moral reasoning: A Catholic hospital president sits down with her/his insurance company and signs a letter saying they will accept the accommodation from the government to have have the insurance company arrange and pay for any contraceptive coverage the hospital's employees apply for. What is the intention in signing? Is the hospital president in signing a letter responsible for subverting a particular sex act that some employee may use a contraceptive for? What if the employee overdoses on another drug covered by the insurance? Is the hospital president responsible for supplying the insurance? What if the employee defrauds the insurance company? Is the hospital president responsible for putting the employee in the position of having an insurer to defraud? Many Catholic non-profit employers have not seen signing the letter as a moral problem. Or we could do the legal reasoning: Is it a substantial burden on the free exercise of his/her religion to sign the letter accepting the accommodation? We would have to compare it with other cases in which the Court has held that government action does or does not present a substantial burden. There are briefs in the cases that do that. I think it comes out that it is not a substantial burden.
    But the point is, given all the U.S. bishops have to worry about and the damage they are doing to themselves and the rest of us by crying victim, can it really be about this attenuated claim of religious liberty? It makes more sense to me that the bishops are worried about the Catholic family in a sexually permissive culture. They could admit that and we could face the real problem together. Do you really want them to split hairs about moral responsibility and free exercise of religion? What is the upside? I don't know if I have the best argument, but I surely see a problem.

    1. Paula, since you repeatedly side against the Catholic Church and her teachings, why don't you go join a nice Episcopalian Church where you will be much happier ?

      You are a disgrace to this Church and you and your entire band of heretics should be excommunicated, just like CTA members were.

    2. Hi, Ann Marie. Thanks for writing. Do you think there is any place for self-criticism inside the Catholic Church to keep it on mission? I am glad the Church has people as loyal as you and all the rest of us who still care. Please don't be angry with us. Instead, we could work together in Jesus' name.

  3. The Bishops transparently seek the Freedom to impose their religious norms on others.

    1. No, they just want the same rights as The New York Times and other liberals: the right to run their operations as they see fit.

      Do Catholics get to tell Jews at the Times what to write ? No...and they don't get to tell us what policies we will cover.

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