The Bishops Can’t ‘Impose’ on Anyone

by Matthew J. Franck

I’d like to expand a bit on the first point in Part 2 of Ed Whelan’s comments on Dorothy Samuels’ NYT op-ed (which, like his Part 1, is characteristically thorough and pointed).  From its beginning, Samuels’ article evinces an almost self-parodically New-York-Timesish incomprehension of what religious freedom means. She writes in her second paragraph:

But the real departure from the Constitution is their specious claim to a right to impose their religious views on millions of Americans who do not share them. Virtually all American women, including Catholic women, use contraceptives sometime in their lives. In essence, the bishops and their allies are arguing that they are above the law and their beliefs should be elevated over pressing societal interests.

Leave aside the wild claim that it is a “pressing societal interest” that women receive prescription contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization procedures at no cost to themselves, as though pregnancy were a grave medical condition to be prevented like influenza.  Leave aside the inflated claim about the number of women, “including Catholic women,” who will at one time or another use contraceptives.  (Inflated, and a red herring too: As Chicago’s Cardinal George put it, “If it can be shown that a majority of Catholic students cheat on their exams, it is still wrong to cheat on exams.”)  Even leave aside the strange claim that the bishops “are arguing that they are above the law,” when they appeal to the law of the Constitution and to RFRA, both of which govern Obamacare and the diktat of the HHS secretary.

No, the truly awful sentence here is the first one, in which Samuels says the bishops make a “specious claim to a right to impose their religious views” on others.  The bishops do not claim a right of any such kind.  They do not want to “impose their religious views” on anyone.  In fact, they cannot.  Individuals are perfectly free to adhere to Catholic teaching on contraception, sterilization, and abortion–or to reject it.  Women in the employ of Catholic (and other religious) institutions–including Catholic women–are free to buy and use contraceptives or not as they see fit, with only their own moral sense and conscience to answer to.  If they desire them and cannot afford them, why does that create some obligation for their employers? 

What the bishops claim, on behalf of their own institutions, on behalf of others run by their church, and on behalf of the countless institutions, private employers, and individuals who have moral scruples about these matters, is the very same freedom–to choose for themselves in the matter of paying for, and thus being involved in the use of, contraception, sterilization, and abortion.  Perhaps the bishops annoy Samuels because in their own case, they regard the choice as having been made for them by the teachings of their faith.  Standing for that faith and its teachings, and declining to be complicit in what those teachings consider to be wrong, is all that they can do but absolutely what they must do.  They have nothing but moral suasion at their disposal, over their flock or anyone else, as regards the actual use of contraceptives, which they do not propose to ban for anyone.  But what is within their control, and the control of those who lead other institutions such as Catholic colleges–and this control is what the Obama administration seeks to destroy–is their own formal or material cooperation with the choices of others that their doctrines forbid.

Samuels, it turns out, is the one who specializes in the specious.

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