Franciscan University of Steubenville just dropped health insurance for its undergraduates, thus becoming one of the most prominent early victims of the Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring all health plans to cover contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs. Today the Catholic Church has found itself engaged in a new Kulturkampf, a cultural struggle initiated by State aggression against the libertas ecclesiae, the freedom of the Church to manage her own affairs so that her members might flourish in virtue and serve their fellow citizens freely.
Unlike the war waged against Catholics in the nineteenth century by Germany’s Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, a devout pietist Christian, our battle has been joined not only by many of our Evangelical brothers and sisters but also by many Mormons, Jews, and others of good will. Polls show the politics of the mandate are not playing out as the administration had hoped, however, as women voters’ support of Obama did not spike, and the broader healthcare bill did not seem to fare well in oral argumentation before the Supreme Court.
Whether Catholic, Evangelical, or otherwise, the resistance has tried to frame the narrative along the lines of religious liberty. On one level, this makes sense. The HHS mandate is a threat to the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment, as even the editorial pages of the Washington Post and USA Today have recognized. Framing it as a constitutional issue seems to make it a public matter of reason, not a private matter of revelation, which invites its marginalization.
The appeal to religious liberty is important, but it must be one prong of a two-pronged strategy. We must also explain why Christians historically have held contraception to be an intrinsic evil. Otherwise, we’ll be regarded at best as irrational eccentrics the state merely tolerates. In the long run, those simply tolerated tend not to fare well.
It is not important, I think, that we actually convince people that Catholics are right on contraception, as amply demonstrated by the support for Catholic rights shown by many Protestants who accept contraception. I do think it is important that people see that we have substantive and well-thought-out reasons for why Catholics reject contraception (as did all major Christian bodies until 1930). We need to show that what is now the Catholic position isn’t simply the fruit of a papal diktat but rather that our position is beautiful, issuing forth from the most profound reflection on Nature and the human person, that our position is a matter of reason and not only revelation, that it’s not really a matter of a mere “religious exemption” at all.
We have before us a real opportunity not merely to defend our right to associate and serve freely in accord with our conscience but also to educate and thereby evangelize the wider public while also catechizing the many poorly-formed Catholics who have little problem with contraception. We should go on offense. While many have been using social media in the struggle for religious freedom, we should also defend the Church’s teaching itself. We should be taking out ads in the New York Times. We should be running television commercials. We should be holding fora on marriage, sex, and family issues not only in our parishes but also in literal public squares like Theology on Tap events in pubs.
We ought to show how our thinking flows from our reasoned and realist conviction that grace completes nature, while the modern biotechnological nightmare we’re facing is a secularized version of the old voluntarist and nominalist idea that grace destroys it. Modern wills use technology to shape their bodies apart from any concern for our natures as embodied men and women. We might make the point that contraception isn’t healthcare because pregnancy isn’t a disease, even though our Gnostic culture considers children a cancer. We ought to argue that Humanae Vitae has proven prophetic. In the face of the West’s demographic decline, we ought to ask progressives what the ultimate ideal future towards which they’re progressing actually is—a sterile secular simulacrum of Eden bereft of the messiness of children?
I have found that most people actually attempt to be people of good will and want to get along with others. And so I have always had a lot of friends who are things I’m not—gay, politically or theologically liberal, agnostic, whatever—who listen to what I say when I say it well. Indeed, some of my best friends and students with whom I’ve been closest are those with whom I disagree most vigorously. They may ultimately disagree with me on serious issues, but they respect me – and I them, when we’ve been able to have substantive discussion of issues, and give each other space. Isn’t that American? Isn’t that Catholic?
The HHS mandate is an existential issue for Catholics, a clear and present danger, which is why Catholics of various theological and political positions have pulled together. As the Church Somnolent rouses herself, however, remembering we’re the Church Militant aided by the Church Triumphant, I would suggest that preserving the libertas ecclesiae requires moving beyond the scope of the limited conscience protections most are arguing for, as if we’re happy to beg the almighty savior State for the table scraps of an exemption. To do so would be to concede the State’s ultimate power over us. While respecting the legitimate domain of the State, we must present the wider public with the beauty, goodness, and truth of our coherent conception of marriage, sex, and family.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Mary Eberstadt, The Vindication of Humanae Vitae
Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Richard Land: Christians Will Go to Jail
Mere Comments, HHS: Cynical Ploy Failing
Franciscan University Drops Undergraduate Health Insurance
Timothy George and Chuck Colson, An Open Letter to Evangelical Christians
USA Today, Contraception Mandate Violates Religious Freedom
Washington Post, Respecting Religious Exemptions
GetReligion.org, Religious Liberty Loses Appeal
GetReligion.org: Frame Game, Birth Control vs. Religious Liberty, Again
Christopher O. Tollefson, Natural Causes, Divine Commands, and Human Wellbeing
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