A few weeks ago conservative wunderkind Rep. Paul Ryan faced scrutiny from nearly 90 Georgetown professors for distorting Catholic teaching to justify his draconian budget proposal. Now, Catholic conservatives are outraged that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius will be speaking at the university on Friday as part of several weekend graduation ceremonies.
Sebelius is at the center of a controversy over an Obama administration policy that requires birth control to be covered at no cost under preventative care provisions of the health care reform law.
Since these groups seem more intent on building walls around Catholic campuses and insulating students from the supposed dangers of diverse perspectives, it’s clearly too much to expect them to applaud a Catholic university for inviting two high-profile Catholics from different political parties and ideological perspectives within a few weeks.
Instead of a “scandal,” I think many Catholics who take their faith seriously and believe strongly in the importance of Catholic identity view it as a healthy sign that Georgetown recognizes the real world is about engaging with people who hold different perspectives – not creating a fortress where we hide from them.
A few important facts to help temper the Catholic right tempest. Sec. Sebelius is not the commencement speaker. She will not receive an honorary degree. As Georgetown President John J. DeGoia explained, she was chosen by students and will offer some reflections and encouraging remarks during an awards ceremony. She has not been invited to pontificate about Catholic teaching, abortion or contraception.
Unlike Rep. Paul Ryan, Sec. Sebelius has not been making the rounds defending her policy positions in specifically Catholic terms. Nor does she claim that her views on contraception and abortion are shared by Catholic bishops. In contrast, Ryan argues that cutting food stamps, health care for the poor and an array of safety net programs that Catholic bishops are warning him to protect are policy positions explicitly inspired by his Catholic faith.
Despite this, the Georgetown professors who chided Ryan over his Catholic defense of Darwinian economic policies did not call on the university president to pull the invitation. In fact, unlike the Newman Society and Catholic right activists they welcomed him to campus and used a civil tone that should be a model for how to disagree without descending to personal attacks.
Criticism of Sec. Sebelius’s pro-choice views is certainly legitimate from a Catholic perspective. I understand why some Catholics might disagree with Georgetown’s decision. But elevating the worst of McCarthy-era witch hunts and censorship into a virtue is a poor lesson for students about to enter a world where every bit of their faith and reason will be needed. Defending Catholic identity should not have to mean that intellectual engagement and civil discourse are viewed as signs of weakness that erode our faith.
…as Christians of various traditions we object to a “naked public square,” stripped of religious arguments and religious believers. We do not seek a “sacred public square” either, which gives special privileges and benefits to religious citizens. Rather, we seek a civil public square, where all citizens can make their contribution to the common good. At our best, we might call this an American public square.
This characterization matches the Bishops’ consistent talking point that the current debate is not about the details of birth control policy, but rather about whether religious freedom should exist. The implication, of course, is that anyone who disagrees with their particular interpretation of this policy is actually objecting to the First Amendment.
But this is a false dichotomy. Yes, there are some people who think the public square should be “stripped of religious arguments and religious believers,” but it’s hardly an overwhelming view, and it’s certainly not the view of many of us who have offered nuanced critiques of the Bishops’ position. To suggest as much is to simply dismiss legitimate questions without answering them.
Even more interesting though, is the second part of the quote in which the Bishops alternately reject the idea of a “sacred public square” that gives “special privileges” to religious citizens. But this is exactly the language many perceptive observers use to characterize the Bishops’ position. Ed Kilgore lays it out well:
What the bishops are actually seeking is not “freedom” but a sort of unwritten concordat—a broad zone of immunity from laws they choose to regard as offensive. Now there is nothing terribly unusual or inherently outrageous about this desire; Vatican diplomacy for centuries has focused on the establishment of such arrangements—though typically written rather than plenary—with a wide array of governments. It’s the idea that this sort of arrangement involves “freedom” rather than frankly acknowledged special privileges that’s novel. [emphasis added]
The heart of the matter, of course, is defining what exactly is a “special privilege” (and subsequently when should they be granted). Is any request for an exemption from an otherwise generally applicable law special? Or is it, as the Bishops seem to say, only descriptive of exceptions that fall outside of the scope of those they choose to designate as matters of religious freedom?
In either case it’s clear that the issue is not as simple as the Bishops portray it to be. As the Blunt amendment debate revealed, religious freedom as an unlimited principle is an untenable solution. But neither are its limits self-evident. As the editors at Commonweal identify in their editorial on this statement, “Church-state relations are complicated, requiring the careful weighing of competing moral claims. The USCCB’s statement fails to acknowledge that fact.”
Negotiating this tricky balance is the messy work of democracy. It’s fair to take issues with particular attempts to strike that balance, but it’s unfair to broadly claim that those who disagree with you object to religious freedom at large.
In what seems to be a reaction to the debate about contraception and religious freedom of the last few months, Xavier University announced its insurance plans for university employees will no longer cover birth control, except for “non-contraceptive reasons.”
This notable exception appears to be an acknowledgement that the same drug can be used for different reasons and that this context determines the moral acceptability of its use. All an employee has to do is prove to the University that she’s using it for the allowed reasons and she’ll be approved. As to what happens if they don’t believe her? Ask Sandra Fluke’s friend.
The problem with this exception is that there’s no justifiable explanation for why it should only apply to birth control. There are a whole host of medical drugs and services which have different moral designations for various faith traditions depending on their use. Viagra doubles as a pulmonary disease treatment, anti-depressants can treat depression or just a low sex drive, and many drugs can be abused for recreational purposes.
Are Xavier employees who are prescribed these medications subject to school interrogation and approval? Are Catholic universities being accused of moral scandal for not doing so? Of course not. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine anyone holding an employer morally culpable for an employee’s misuse of a medical service, even more so when detecting that misuse requires determining the employee’s intentions.
Adopting a moral standard to prevent such a case would require instituting an enormously complex, legally questionable and distasteful verification and approval system, one that would require employers to become medical experts and lie detectors. Faced with the choice, employers (including religious employers) have understandably settled on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise that keeps the moral calculus in the hands of the individual.
Some religious workplaces even add an extra level of buffer, either requiring via contract or simply making clear that employees are expected to follow church teaching in their personal lives. What employees do after that point is on their individual consciences.
This standard essentially treats health care benefits the same way workplaces treat other forms of compensation such as salary and wages. A person who does something objectionable with their salary doesn’t make their employer complicit in their choice. Why should their health care purchases be any different?
Bishops and other religious objectors already have a way to protect their own institutional consciences from moral culpability regarding contraception. That they aren’t doing so makes it hard to buy their assertions that the HHS ruling on contraception coverage is an unbearable regulation that will force them to shut down. And that their objection only selectively applies to the issue of birth control does little to support their claim that their opposition to is simply about religious freedom and has nothing to do with contraception.
Keynoting last Friday’s ”Stand up for Religious Freedom” rally in Washington, DC (organized by a coalition of mostly anti-abortion groups), Christian conservative commentator Star Parker earned her biggest applause by drawing the following comparison:
No more than should my auto insurance cover your tune-up should my health insurance cover your sex life
While Parker’s audience seems to find this analogy hilarious, I don’t quite get its appeal. Assuming that Parker doesn’t have a particular moral objection to tune-ups, it just doesn’t make any sense.
My best guess is that Parker is simply appealing to the broader Randian sentiment all the rage on the right these days that individuals should be obligated to no one but themselves; that they specifically shouldn’t have to pay for anything for anyone else.
But, of course, paying for things for other people is the entire concept of insurance. Sure, it may feel personalized (I buy a policy from a company, pay my premiums, and when I need coverage they write a check for me), but in practice it’s really a miniature form of – gasp — “socialism,” redistributing wealth from the healthy to the sick, the good drivers to the bad, the lucky to the unlucky.
Some may not like knowing that their premiums “subsidize” the risky or objectionable decisions of their fellow policyholders, but that’s why they don’t really get a say. Once they write their premium check it’s not really their money anymore; they’re better off viewing it as just the regular fee they pay to ensure financial security if something bad happens to them.
If Parker and others really believe what’s she saying, their problems are much larger than the marginal issue of contraception coverage and religious employers. They should probably just stop buying insurance altogether.
He remarked that such politicians are practicing a certain “schizophrenia between individual and public morality.” Some Catholic politicians, Benedict notes, may claim to practice their religion in the private sphere, but “in public life they follow other paths that don’t correspond to the great values of the Gospel which are necessary for the foundation of a just society.”
Benedict argued that the Church must liberate politics “from false interests and the obscurity imposed by those interests” and work to create a “social doctrine [that] overcome[es] this social division [between rich and poor]—which is truly anti-social.”
“Benedict took a staple of Western pro-life rhetoric, which is the need for coherence between a Catholic’s private beliefs and public positions, and gave it a far broader spin. The need for coherence, the pope suggested, doesn’t end with the culture wars, but also applies to other questions of social justice – including, in the first instance, solidarity with the poor and efforts to overcome glaring inequalities.”