Mark Kimble of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Kennesaw, Ga., stands with others during the "Stand Up for Religious Freedom" rally on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta March 23. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)
While it is certainly right to lament the fact
the Obama administration is attempting to force Catholic institutions, through
the Health and Human Services mandate, to provide insurance coverage for
contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization, there is a bright side to
all this. It may very well be a wily act of divine providence, a case of God
using hostile secular powers to effect much-desired goals of the Church itself.
In saying this, I don’t mean to undermine the
gravity of the situation. The HHS mandate is an egregious violation of the
Church’s moral doctrines, of the proper relationship of church and state, and
of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. If it is an act of
divine providence, it is one of those divine goadslike the Church being forced
to clean out child molesters among its shepherds by the onslaughts of the
secular pressthat we wish could have been avoided by doing the right thing to
So, what seems providential about this whole
mess? The HHS mandate has had the happy effect of forcing the bishops (and
priests under them) to do something that they’ve sadly neglected to do for the
last half-century: defend the Church’s teaching against contraception. They
have been vocal enough against abortion, but about contraception, the
near-silence has been deafening.
The result has been that a reported 90-plus
percent of Catholics interpret the silence as consent, as a sign that the
Church’s ban on birth control is really, more or less, like the Church’s
tradition of having only altar boys. The former can be overcome just like the
latter by cheerfully ignoring the prohibition, and doing as one pleases until
the Church catches up.
There is little doubt that the Obama administration,
in issuing the mandate, understood the situation quite well, and planned its
strategy accordingly. The strategists knew the bishops have always been lukewarm
in their defense of the Church’s prohibition against contraception. They also
knew that the bishops were red-hot in their enthusiasm for national health-care.
How likely was it that American bishops who couldn’t be prodded into a defense
of the Church’s teaching against contraception would suddenly be galvanized
into action by the state to defend this teaching, especially if delivered in
the coveted national health-care package?
Even more shrewd and ambitious, the Obama team
might have reasoned that if it could get the Catholic Church to swallow
contraceptives for the sake of health-care, that would lead to the affirmation
of abortifacients, which would in turn lead to the eventual acceptance of
abortion as such. And then, the single largest opponent to the social
acceptability of abortion would lie submissively prostrate in the historical
dust. The great battle that began with Roe would
finally be over.
If that weren’t enough playing into the administration’s
favor in the gambit, Protestants have no problem with contraception, so it was
inconceivable (pardon the pun) that they would ever rush to the side of
Catholics to defend a moral doctrine they reject.
No doubt it seemed to Obama’s strategic team
that it had cleverly picked the weakest link, so to speak, in the moral armor
of the contemporary American Catholic Church, one that would allow them to
assert state control over the Church and its doctrines.
This strategy, ingenious as it seemed,
backfired precisely because the HHS mandate also included the provision of
abortifacients (like Plan B and Ella) masquerading as contraceptives. Abortion
is still a very, very hot-button issue for Protestants, ensuring their alliance
in the cause, and a moral issue on which the Catholic bishops have remained
stalwart and vocal. The administration’s “Plan B” plan blew up in its face, we
might say, precisely because modern technology has smeared the dividing line
between contraception and surgical abortion with morning-after pills.
And here we have wily divine providence at
work, turning attacks against the Church into (we may hope) astounding victories.
If the Obama administration had included only contraceptives in the mandate, it
would not have attracted so much sympathetic moral ire from Protestants who
accept contraception but vehemently reject abortion. But including
abortifacients lit a great spark under Protestant evangelicals, and so, much to
the administration’s surprise, they’ve come running to the defense of the
Catholic Church. Just as with the larger abortion issue, the inclusion of
abortifacients is driving long-separated Christians together, uniting them
against the secular state.
But that is not the end of the wiles of
providence. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius (a dissenting Catholic) has
recently tried to quell the fires by claiming that there
actually are no abortifacients in the mandate; that they are all
contraceptives. In doing so, she is obviously trying to calm the evangelicals
opposed to abortion but not to contraception. But in trying to “erase” the
nasty word “abortifacient” from the minds of those non-Catholics opposing the
mandate, she is only calling attention to it. She is only causing evangelical
Protestants to look more carefully at abortifacients as a kind of “class,” and
that can only lead them from an examination of “Plan B” to the Pill, the most
popular contraceptive that is also an abortifacient.
And where would that end? Back at a discovery
by evangelical Protestants of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae
Vitaethe encyclical written against the Pill? To a kind of moral
affirmation of the prescience and courage of a pope who, contra
mundum, declared artificial contraception to be intrinsically evil?
To a deep appreciation of the pope’s prophetic words about the “the danger of…power
passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the
precepts of the moral law,” authorities who might then, “favoring those
contraceptive methods which they consider more effective,…impose their use on
As Catholics and Protestants unite in their
opposition to the HHS mandate, they will talk about what the mandate is
mandating, i.e., they will turn to a discussion of the Church’s moral
prohibition of contraceptives and abortifacients. As Catholic dioceses around
the nation celebrate the bishops’ declared Fortnight for Freedom (June 21-July
4), they will have to attend to the Church’s rejection of contraception and
abortifacients among their own parishioners.
In short, the bishops are at long last being forced
by the mandate to explain and defend the Church’s teaching about the immorality
of contraception both to outsiders and insiders, to separated brethren and its
own flock, a task it has long declined to do. That will take quite a bit of
moral courage, and that courage hasthanks to the HHS mandatebeen ignited by
the crude high-handedness of the administration in attempting to bully the
Church into quiet submission.
Now you might think that the bishops would
evade this moral responsibility by taking refuge in merely defending religious
liberty. I think that they are better than that. A moral corner has been
turned, and under the leadership of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the bishops are charging ahead,
declaring that they are willing to accept jail and will close down their
institutions before buckling to the secular state.
But just in case anyone else might be thinking
that the HHS mandate can be fought solely on the issue of religious liberty
alone, we may take a closer look at how wily providence would disallow
religious liberty to be the sole issue.
The immorality of contraception, abortifacients, and abortion is the real
issue; freedom of religion is secondary.
There is no doubt
that the bishops mean freedom of religion to be a means,
rather than a goal or end; that is, they are concerned that the secular state
not interfere with the church’s rightful activities and force it to act against
its moral doctrine. While the bishops are using the First Amendment’s guarantee
of religious liberty as a first strategic defense, they are ultimately making a
moral argument; that is, they are
arguing that contraceptives and abortifacients are intrinsically evil, and so
the state is violating the Church’s moral conscience in forcing it to supply
them through insurance.
We can look at it from another angle to make
this same point. The bishops do not object to the HHS mandate merely because it
is trying to force them to provide insurance. That is, they are not objecting
to it on the same grounds as those now challenging Obamacare in general before
the Supreme Courtthat Congress has exceeded its constitutional
limits in requiring individuals and associations to buy a particular service.
The bishops are not, to say the least, upset by Congress misusing the Commerce
Clause or violating Tenth Amendment’s guarantee of state rights. They are not
objecting to Congress forcing their institutions to provide insurance as, in
and of itself, a violation of religious freedom. They are upset because the
mandate itself is trying to force them to act against the Church’s moral
prohibition of contraception.
And now for a bit of prophecy. The Obama administration
knows that it’s gotten itself into a big fix with the HHS mandate, stirring up
far more controversy that it ever dreamed possible. Look for something like the
following announcement by HHS Secretary Sibelius: “We are going to remove Plan
B and Ulipristal [the morning-after pills, a.k.a., abortifacients] from the HHS
mandate. Only contraceptives will be covered.” The hope will be, of course,
that with abortifacients removed, most Catholic and all Protestant animus will
be assuaged, and the mandate will be smoothly accepted on August 1, 2012 when
it is slated to take effect.
believe that wily providence will already have anticipated this strategy, and
it will backfire precisely because both Protestants and Catholics will have discovered
that most contraceptives are also abortifacients, and even more hopefully, that
contraception itself is morally wrong.