Sunday, February 19, 2012

On contraception and its provision

I finally pulled myself away from Charles Murray's excellent new book, Coming Apart--which I plan on reviewing--to comment on the recent hullabaloo concerning contraception. The recent health care bill, colloquially known as Obama care, will require that employers cover the cost of contraception for employees. The American bishops of the Roman Catholic Church objected, noting that the law would require that Catholics violate their consciences.

The Catholic position on contraception is succinctly summarized in the Catechism:

Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is intrinsically evil:

Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. . . . The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.

This position is poorly understood, even in Catholic circles, partially because it is a complicated matter and the Church's stance, though consistent, can be hard to grasp, and partially because the American bishops have done a poor job of explaining the teaching. None of this alters the fact that the Church holds that the use of contraception is immoral.

In this benighted age, in which logic and reason are rare, the argument has been bandied about that since most Catholics do not adhere to the teachings of the Church when it comes to contraception, the Church's position is unsound. This is lamentably true, but it's irrelevant to the conversation. Individual Catholics may flaunt Church teaching--though, of course, the Church may also punish her members for disobedience--but so too may Catholic institutions adopt policies in accordance with Church teaching. To refuse these institutions this right is to blatantly violate the religious freedoms enshrined in the Constitution. Whether or not the High Court sees things this way, is, as always, another matter.

There's another issue at stake, here, however, which may be more important. If the Obama administration allows a conscience exemption for Catholic institutions, it's very likely that this will be the end of the matter. The left will howl at this capitulation, but the bishops will pronounce themselves pleased. And yet, individual Catholics will still be required to violate their consciences, because private insurers cover contraception and because Medicaid does. I'm glad to see the bishops protesting the infringement of the freedom of the Church. I would like to see them do likewise when it comes to the freedoms of individual Catholics.

In regards to private insurers, the problem can be solved simply--though not, I am sad to say, easily. The reason companies provide healthcare is because of the government. During WWII, wage controls prevented companies from competing for valuable workers by paying them more money. So they sweetened the deal by offering healthcare. If healthcare was no longer provided by the employer, Catholic employees could use Catholic health insurers that did not provide contraception services. Simple, but in the present environment, practically impossible. For the time being, we must continue to violate our consciences.

The situation with Medicaid is equally hopeless, but it does allow for the illustration of a point. Our progressive age views health care as a "right". In philosophical terms, this is known as a positive right, as against the negative rights enshrined in the Constitution. (I'll not quote her here, but Ilana Mercer's latest column handles this in considerable detail, with her customary clarity and erudition.) Positive rights require something of someone else; someone must work so that someone else may receive "free health care". This is always the case with positive rights: they require that some other right be violated.

Negative rights, on the other hand, do not require such sacrifice; freedom of speech does not require that anyone give up a right. As long as we continue to speak of positive rights, there will always be a chance that religious individuals must violate their consciences in order to provide whatever the secular State demands. With or without Obamacare, Catholics will have to continue to work to provide someone else with contraception.

There are two ways out of this mess. The first is to prohibit the Government from paying for contraception with taxpayer money. This is preposterous; only a small number of Catholics care about this issue, so getting this provision through Congress is well nigh impossible. The second is to reclaim from the State that which should belong to the Church. There is no reason why Catholics should provide for the poor and the sick through the secular State. There is no reason that the Church should have allowed the State to appropriate this to itself in the first place.

As Paul A. Rahe recently argued:

In the 1930s, the majority of the bishops, priests, and nuns sold their souls to the devil, and they did so with the best of intentions. In their concern for the suffering of those out of work and destitute, they wholeheartedly embraced the New Deal. They gloried in the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Frances Perkins – a devout Anglo-Catholic laywoman who belonged to the Episcopalian Church but retreated on occasion to a Catholic convent – Secretary of Labor and the first member of her sex to be awarded a cabinet post. And they welcomed Social Security – which was her handiwork. They did not stop to ponder whether public provision in this regard would subvert the moral principle that children are responsible for the well-being of their parents. They did not stop to consider whether this measure would reduce the incentives for procreation and nourish the temptation to think of sexual intercourse as an indoor sport. They did not stop to think.

In a sense then, Obama's overreach has been useful. It has clarified a deep incongruity in Church policy. It also allows a chance to stake out a position more in tune with the full spectrum of Church teaching. For while the sick ought to be cured if possible, fertility is not a disease. The Church understands this, which is why her bishops should understand why it is unwise to allow the State to continue to play doctor.

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