GRAVER: Church and state in conflict

Gravely Mistaken

Imagine yourself as an Orthodox Jewish owner of a local kosher delicatessen. Things are going well until, one day, for whatever reason, the government passes a law requiring that all food outlets serve pork. What are you to do?

Bishop William Lori presented this hypothetical to Congress last week in the wake of Health and Human Service Department’s mandate that Catholic hospitals provide contraception. It is not a perfect comparison, but it underscores a tension between perceived social good and the religious principles of an accepted faith.

Some have said the lesson of the HHS controversy is simply about management. Social goods and services just need to be delegated better. But sooner or later, we need to let go of the temptation to draw from the never-ending pool of compromise.

Looking at this issue as a matter of entitlement reform genuinely overlooks the cultural elephant in the room. What some see as the clumsiness of the welfare state may actually be society’s confusion about its prioritization of values.

Despite our fondness for ideological purity, we ask our political leaders to be walking contradictions. We ask each politician to be two different yet compatible people: a political one and a religious one.

The guiding presumption here, embodied by the HHS mandate, is that we deem secularism impartial. It is the foundation everyone shares, and individual people can add to it privately as they choose. The statesman is expected to embrace a sort of civil secularism, where his first principles, moral codes and sense of rights come from a view of the ideal, fair society.

Sure, this secularism tolerates the religious sprinkles of “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance or Christmas as a national holiday. But it also holds that universal, consequential matters can only be decided objectively, apart from the irrationalities of religion.

In the United States, this way of thinking does not translate to a rise in atheism. Instead, there is a growing trend of the modernized religion — a modified faith, grounded in age-old tradition yet at the same time mutable enough to accommodate the times.

Certainly, this overarching civic reverence is not always at odds with religion. Civil virtues often protect and complement religious ones. Our jurisprudential history is full of constitutional defenses of religious activity.

However, the HHS mandate is a matter of divine apples and oranges. It is a battle of competing requirements. On one hand, certain American mores have decided that contraception is a matter of civic rights. Logically, civic secular morality calls for the protection of these rights. On the other hand, the morality of the Catholic Church deems such action abhorrent and sinful.

I agree, largely, that the legislative specifics of this controversy could be solved with some general common sense. But to next wipe one’s hands clean ignores the mandate’s guiding mentality, which will remain culturally fixed to our generation well beyond this dilemma.

It is crucial to understand that until the tremendous backlash, the Obama administration had no moral qualms about forcing the Catholic Church to violate its core beliefs directly. The hand of the state unwaveringly inserted itself as a barrier to their path to God.

This choice was not an act of welfare-minded clumsiness. It was conscious prioritization, and we need to explore its justification. The issue is not that the Obama administration missed an opportunity to compromise. The issue is that in a conflict between civil secularism and the faith-based principles of the Church, the former won.

On a lower level, this is a question of liberty in the modern state. On a fundamentally more important plane, the question is: Is natural law still supreme in our system of law?

It is profoundly naïve to believe that two codes of rights — natural rights grounded in faith and God and civil rights grounded in reason and philosophy — are mutually compatible if only they are relegated to the right spheres. Stemming from disparate foundations, these two understandings of rights, duties and morals will conflict again. Institutions of God will not defer to the proscriptions of man. The HHS mandate hits exactly this tension, and our generation will not be able to avoid these choices.

The sound bite-driven current presidential campaign makes this issue seem like a last-chance grasp at theocracy on the behalf of the Right. This could not be further from the truth. Instead, the HHS mandate is a sobering reminder that if society hopes to separate church and state, the former must occasionally be protected from the latter. Our national conscience cannot tolerate anything else.

Harry Graver is a sophomore in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at harry.graver@yale.edu.

Comments

  • River_Tam

    There may be a civil right to put whatever you want into your body. There is no civil right for it to be provided to you.

  • penny_lane

    Most of the traditions of the Catholic church are historically rooted in politics, not religion. Why are priests celibate? Political reasons, including making sure priests’ property stayed with the church instead of being bequeathed to sons. It has nothing to do with bodily purity.

    Access to contraception is deeply important, particularly for low income families whose only access to healthcare may be a nearby Catholic provider. Asking all healthcare providers to make sure their patients have access to the best care available should not be seen as a slight to religion. It’s probably what Jesus would want for people anyway.

    • RexMottram08

      There are prudential decisions and there are dogmatic decisions. “Political” is a crude and inaccurate characterization.

      Graduating high school, getting a job and getting married BEFORE having children are much more important than birth control for low income families.

      • alsoanon

        “Graduating high school, getting a job and getting married BEFORE having children are much more important than birth control for low income families.”

        Birth control has everything to do with accomplishing those goals. Come on. And you can spit “abstinence” at me if you want, but even if that’s the solution you’d prefer it’s not a realistic one.

        • RexMottram08

          Outside the laboratory, condoms and the Pill fail with great regularity and INCREASE the frequency of risky sexual intercourse.

          They’re not the answer.

          • penny_lane

            So rates of 7% and 3% respectively constitute “great regularity” in your book?

            You really live in a fantasy world, don’t you?

          • RexMottram08

            Hey, it’s your philosophy that is in ruins all around us.

            NYC has a 40% abortion rate for black women. But I’m another dump truck of pills will solve that!

  • Rek

    If the Church wants to be fully protected from the State, it should not seek or accept State funds, which inevitably come with strings attached. Render unto Caesar…

    • RexMottram08

      Too bad the State cannot offer anything. If you want social services, you need the Churches and Charities.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Fascinating Catch-22 of liberties.

    If the RCC is going to have the right to control women’s reproductive activities, then the ‘other’ world religions ought to have the right to polygamy , female genital mutilation, conjugal servitude based on gender . Tit for tat, so to speak.

    PK

    • River_Tam

      > If the RCC is going to have the right to control women’s reproductive activities

      They don’t! They don’t have this supposed power that you’ve invented. This is like saying that my employer has the right to control my wealth or that the church has the right to control my drinking habits.

      • penny_lane

        Except they are undeniably trying to control women’s reproductive activities through directly denying reproductive health care. They have even claimed it as a right through freedom of religion.

        • River_Tam

          > Except they are undeniably trying to control women’s reproductive activities through directly denying reproductive health care.

          I don’t know if you’re talking about employer-provided insurance, or Catholic hospitals, so I’ll cover both:

          1) Setting up a compensation scheme in which a person is not compensated for the cost of a service is not morally or legally equivalent to preventing someone from obtaining that service elsewhere.

          2) Refusing to provide a service is not the same thing as preventing someone from obtaining that service elsewhere.

          In neither case are they controlling women’s reproductive activities.

          • penny_lane

            Health care is not a service, it’s a necessity. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to shop providers. Simply boiling it down to “a service” is a very flippant way of thinking about this issue.

          • River_Tam

            > Health care is not a service, it’s a necessity. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to shop providers. Simply boiling it down to “a service” is a very flippant way of thinking about this issue.

            1) Things can be both services and necessities.
            2) Health care IS a service, by virtue of it not being a good.
            3) You can’t have a right to something that rightfully belongs to someone else (in this case, the services and time of a doctor).
            4) If you are saying that health care is a right, then you are saying that doctors ought to be obligated to treat whoever walks in their door.
            5) Access to the pill (and an abortion, except in rare cases) is NOT a necessity under any definition of necessity.

            (Note: we carve out humanitarian exceptions for ER care; you’re seeking to expand this to cover access to the pill, etc)

          • penny_lane

            I didn’t say health care in itself is a right. However, the point is moot, because life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (which we all agree are rights, yes?) cannot be attained without access to health care. Also, by most standards of medical ethics, doctors ARE obligated to treat anyone in need of care. Should that be made a legal mandate? No. But the obligation stands.

            Providing access to birth control in this day and age should be considered necessary to meet the minimum standard of care. It empowers women to take control of their own lives, and, as joematcha points out below, generally reduces the cost of healthcare both for individuals and for everyone.

          • River_Tam

            > However, the point is moot, because life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (which we all agree are rights, yes?) cannot be attained without access to health care.

            Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can be obtained without birth control and abortion. Like I said, except in rare cases, birth control and abortions are NOT medical necessities by even the broadest definition of necessity. And if you’re going to count the ability to have condomless sex as a necessity to secure our god-given rights, then you’ve just gone off the rails.

            > Also, by most standards of medical ethics, doctors ARE obligated to treat anyone in need of care. Should that be made a legal mandate? No. But the obligation stands.

            Self-imposed obligations are different from externally-imposed ones for obvious reasons.

            > Providing access to birth control

            What is “access to birth control”? Does it mean the legal right to purchase it? Do you mean the right to purchase it at low prices? (uninsured, the pill can cost as low as $25/month). Or are you saying that people have a right to have their employer pay for their birth control pills as part of their compensation package? Because these are all very different and it seems like you’re phrasing it like you’re in favor of the former but advocating like you’re in favor of the latter.

          • penny_lane

            All of it. All of the above. Access to unbiased counseling and education, condoms, the pill, IUD’s, tubal ligations, and abortions, covered by insurance and provided by doctors. You can’t ignore the history: women were never able to achieve economic independence until they were given the ability to choose when and whether to be pregnant. In terms of women’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, birth control is fundamental.

            Yes, condoms are widely available, but they are neither as effective nor as affordable as the pill. Asking people to rely on condoms is just silly.

          • RexMottram08

            The women in my life beg to differ. They want no part of your birth control chemical dependency.

          • penny_lane

            That argument’s been tired since people used it as a reason for women not to vote.

          • RexMottram08

            Funny how the less regulated portions of our economy offer a bounty of provider choice… maybe health care central planning is the problem…

            Health care in unlimited quantity, without regard to cost or quality is NOT a necessity. That’s slavery. You cannot compel a doctor to work for free. You cannot defeat the fundamental issue of scarcity. You cannot immanentize the eschaton.

  • joematcha

    “It is not a perfect comparison”

    That’s true; it’s a terrible one. This regulation does not force the church to approve of contraception or even actively do anything. It’s saying that organizations (and it explicitly exempts the church; Catholic hospitals are not churches and they hire non-Catholics as well as accept public funds) cannot discriminate in their health coverage based on their religion.

    It also makes perfect sense, and thus is perfectly legal under current constitutional interpretations of the commerce clause, that the government would have this particular regulation as part of implementing ACA, since access to contraception reduces healthcare and insurance costs as a whole and that’s the entire regulatory point of ACA in the first place.

    • RexMottram08

      Except for that tricky, stubborn FIRST AMENDMENT!

      Darn it!

      • joematcha

        Please explain in detail using the constitution how this violates the first amendment.

        • Galavantian

          “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

          To require a Catholic to allocate funding to something that goes against his religion would be infringing on his religious rights. The law leaves no room for religious dissent – conscientious objection, if you will.

  • The Anti-Yale

    *”Catholic hospitals are not churches and they hire non-Catholics as well as accept public funds) cannot discriminate in their health coverage based on their religion.”*

    **I recall my 73-year-old mother stranded on vacation 3000 miles from home (Mt. Carmel) in the only hospital available, Sacred Heart in Eugene, Oregon, fully conscious on life-support machinery for 118-days until her body rotted around the machines and did what Nature intended: ENDED.
    I am not so sure that Yale-New Haven Hospital would not have quietly allowed the end to come sooner had my mother been a hostage there instead of 3000 miles away.
    It seems to me that ironically, the papacy my mother had been taught to hate as a child by her “Black Protestant” grandfather in Guilford, Conn., did have a hand in my mother’s four month ordeal (or torture, if you want to be frank.)
    PK
    M. Div.’80, etc.**

  • Galavantian

    I’m actually with the Church on this one – requiring a religion-based institution to fund and propagate a practice which goes against its catechism is a violation of free exercise.

    Contrary to joematcha, I think the kosher deli analogy is an apt one. Despite the fact that the deli might employ non-Jews and serve non-Jews, the proprietor should never within reason be required to supply a good (or service) which is in violation of his personal beliefs.

    Regardless of whether or not the measure is constitutional under the commerce clause, it has dubious legitimacy under the First Amendment and is plain bad politics.

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