Bench Memos

The Bishops Can’t ‘Impose’ on Anyone

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.

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

It’s the Stock Market, Stupid

Before going any further, I must say that I don’t believe Protectionist Donald really will go all the way with his present attempt to strangle global trade. I believe that the end run will be quite similar to what it was with the steel and aluminum tariffs — which is to say, a photo op in the Oval Office. ... Read More

An Even Worse Vatican Deal with China

Of all the disturbing and even silly things that have been said in defense of the deal between the Vatican and China reportedly being negotiated, the most offensive is that critics of this proposed arrangement to regularize Catholic life in the PRC don’t understand that the Cold War is over and the world is in ... Read More

Ten Things that Caught My Eye Today (March 23, 2018)

I send out a free weekly e-mail newsletter that typically goes out Saturday mornings and includes WFB flashbacks, Firing Line videos, upcoming events, and some of what I’ve been up to. Sign up here. 1. Cardinal Timothy Dolan in the Wall Street Journal: Talking about New York, he noted: 2. The Guardian on the ... Read More
National Review

Palm Sunday with WFB

The wonderful National Review Institute forum in New York City last month, held on the tenth anniversary of Bill Buckley’s death -- but truly a celebration of his life and legacy -- was captured by the good folks at C-SPAN, who now tell us that two panels of the forum will be broadcast this Sunday on C-SAN 3. ... Read More