If there is one thing that disaffection with “Wall Street” has achieved it is the ramping up of moral discourse. Not since the Great Depression, probably, have we heard so much about greed, corruption and injustice. But if you want people to be temperate, honest and just, they have to have two things: firm principles and a functioning conscience. How surprising, then, that the New York Times thinks we need neither.
In an editorial last weekend the Times argued that private insurers and employers who object to contraception as a matter of moral principle should be forced to provide coverage for it in their employees health insurance plans. Their conscientious objection to a White House edict mandating such coverage should be dismissed; it simply doesn’t rate on an ethical scale with birth control at the top and sexual morality at the bottom.
The Obama “contraceptives mandate” is due to take effect next year. All new plans will have to provide full cover for all FDA-approved birth control, surgical sterilisation and counselling for such services. A number of states have similar mandates but, according to Catholic authorities, the federal move is more radical than any of them.
An exemption for “religious employers” is so narrow it is laughable. It is available only for those that have teaching religious values as their purpose and primarily employ and serve people who share their religious tenets. The Catholic bishops have pointed out that, under this definition, “even the ministry of Jesus and the early Christian Church would not qualify as ‘religious’ because they did not confine their ministry to co-religionists or engage only in a preaching ministry.” The Good Samaritan would not be exempt. The federal move is “an unprecedented attack on religious liberty” say the bishops.
Last week representatives of Catholic institutions testified before a House subcommittee about the disproportionate impact which the contraceptives mandate would have on them. They would be forced, said the CEO of the Alliance of Catholic Healthcare, which represents 54 hospitals and 40 other care facilities in California, to choose between violating their consciences or no longer providing or paying for healthcare and other services — leading to reduced care, especially for some of the weakest in society.
Too bad, says the Times, in effect. Perhaps the paper thinks the Church is bluffing about closing down services, although conflict with same-sex adoption laws saw the Boston Archdiocese give up its adoption work in 2006 and the same may happen in Illinois. Perhaps the editorialiser doesn’t care. Clearly, they think the moral predicament of millions of Catholics responsible for, working in or even using these services a matter of no importance compared to “access” to birth control. Their consciences are offended? Tough, says the Times. Let them hang their moral scruples on the coat-stand before they reach the office — just as Bernie Madoff and Rupert Murdoch did when they went to work in the morning.
Is that a fair comparison? After all, Madoff and Murdoch offended against widely accepted ethical norms: thou shalt not deceive and defraud investors; thou shalt not condone, let alone encourage, invasions of privacy. And the harm they wrought was very real.
But the Catholic Church and its ban on contraception? Why, most of its own members appear not to understand it, let alone take it as a practical guide. Someone representing Catholics for Choice claimed at the hearings last week that “98 per cent of sexually active Catholic women had used a form of contraception banned by the Vatican”, as the Times editorial solemnly noted. The fact that Catholics for Choice is a stooge for the Ford Foundation, Planned Parenthood and other population control freaks makes the statistic rather suspect, of course, but widespread dissent from, or at least ignorance of the church’s teaching is an undeniable fact.
And yet, that does not make the Catholic authorities’ case against the Obama mandate one whit less valid. The bishops remain bound in conscience to uphold the Church’s teaching, make sure Catholics know it, and see that it is given practical effect in every enterprise under their jurisdiction. And all Catholics are bound by the teaching too, even if 100 per cent of them don’t acknowledge it.
As a matter of fact, many do accept the teaching and live by it. Up until now it has been respected as an ethical norm — of long standing — of a significant community within American society. What has also been respected up until now is that not only Catholics but all Americans ought to be free to follow their conscience in such matters. Women who want contraception coverage in their plans can choose the appropriate employer; those who run the institutions ought to be able to offer plan consistent with their moral principles.
Now, those affected by the contraceptives mandate face coercion — basically, a choice between their conscience and their job. It does not matter that the number of those who actually experience this dilemma may be relatively few; it is the principle that is dangerous, the idea that one’s conscience can be parked in the lobby when we leave our homes and churches to participate in public life. That you can ignore it and no harm will come.
The Obama administration and the New York Times, along with the Ford Foundation, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, may think the landmark 1968 encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae, is poppycock, but they cannot afford to think that conscience is poppycock. If they do, on what grounds could they disapprove of Madoff, or Murdoch or any fraudster or hacker — any kind of criminal at all?
The whole justice system, the whole of society, rests on the assumption that people can know right from wrong and choose between them. To relativise conscience in the way that the Times does is to take a very dangerous path. The world’s current financial troubles and scandals have made it very clear that we need to take more notice of conscience, not less; that consciences need to be formed by consistent moral principles and kept alert to their demands.
If that is not the case, what on earth is Bernie Madoff doing in prison?
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.