Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Sometime soon, the Supreme Court will announce its decision in the Hobby Lobby case. Depending on how the justices rule, certain institutions may find themselves exempt from the controversial HHS mandate that requires them to arrange for the provision of contraception, sterilization, and certain abortifacient drugs. Although Hobby Lobby is a private corporation with Protestant owners, the case has implications for many others.

Catholics in particular have an interest here: The number of institutions sponsored by and otherwise identified with the Catholic Church is very large, and the Catholic bishops have spoken out clearly on the matter. At the moment, some Catholic institutions have a temporary waiver, and others do not. Some of those without a waiver have conformed, albeit in some cases under protest. It seems as if everyone is now waiting for the Court. But what if the justices do not give relief? What then?

In a statement of March 14, 2012, entitled “United for Religious Freedom,” the Administrative Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that the mandate requires Catholic institutions to “act against Church teachings.” In a statement of April 12, 2012, entitled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty said that the mandate will “force religious institutions to facilitate and fund a product contrary to their own moral teaching.”

And at the conclusion of their general assembly in November 2013, the U.S. Bishops issued a “Special Message,” passed unanimously, in which they reaffirmed earlier claims and said, “As the government’s implementation of the mandate against us approaches, we bishops stand united in our resolve to resist this heavy burden and protect our religious freedom. . . . We seek to answer the Gospel call to serve our neighbors, meet our obligation to provide our people with just health insurance, protect our religious freedom, and not be coerced to violate our consciences.” These are strong words expressing a strong and clear position.

Presumably the bishops have not changed their minds about the requirements of Church teaching, so there is really no option for Catholic institutions who wish to follow their bishops. If the mandate stands, then Catholic institutions must refuse to conform.

What refusal would result in is unclear. The fines involved are draconian, but perhaps they need not be paid. If enough institutions jointly declined to pay, enforcement might turn out to be impossible, or to require too high a political cost for the administration. There are a lot of possibilities worth exploring. But more important than these details is the refusal itself.

If, after the bishops have claimed that conforming to the mandate would involve acting against Church teachings, Catholics then conformed, we would be sending a very clear message to the present administration, and to future administrations as well: When we say that something is against our teachings, it doesn’t mean that we won’t do it—all it means is that someone has to threaten us first. We may speak truth to power, but we give power the last word. Our conscience is for sale, and the only thing left to discuss is the price. Future administrations may wonder how heavy a fine they will need to levy to get Catholics to fall in line, but they’ll know in advance that it’s just a question of finding the right market price. In short, conforming would set a terrible precedent. There’s no doubt that it will lead to further restrictions on the freedom of the Church and of Catholic institutions.

It could be objected that there is a way of parsing the bishops’ statements that doesn’t require refusal. They have said, one might argue, that arranging for contraceptives and the like is inconsistent with Church teaching, but they haven’t said that doing so under threat of law is inconsistent with Church teaching. I find this interpretation forced, but what’s relevant here is something else, namely, that everyone will take it as “Clintonian” (the new word for what used to be called “Jesuitical”): in other words, everyone will take it as a just sneaky way for Catholics to go back on their words. Our yes should be yes and our no should be no. The bishops have said no, and this is no time to twist their words.

Implicit in all this is a caution about using strong language in public debates. Appeals to conscience and the requirements of Church teaching should not be made lightly. If we don’t intend to follow through all the way, we shouldn’t make such appeals at all. In this case, we have made such appeals—and quite rightly, in my judgment—and now we must be prepared to follow through on them.

We should all hope and pray that the Supreme Court grants relief from the absurd HHS mandate, and that a future administration does away with it altogether. But if this doesn’t happen, then we should all hope and pray that Catholic institutions, led by their bishops, will have the courage and consistency to follow through on what the bishops have said.

Not conforming would likely bring a very high cost. Certain Catholic institutions could find themselves put out of business. Because I am an employee of one of these institutions, I could find myself out of a job—so I don’t say any of this lightly. But as our Lord has taught us, there are worse things to lose than one’s job.

Michael Gorman is associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles