Did you miss it? The return of the HHS Mandate battle

U.S. Supreme Court building.

U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I missed it, what with Thanksgiving, dissertation revisions, end-of-the-semester grading, but the struggle against the HHS Mandate will soon return to public prominence as the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a couple of challenges against it: Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius and Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby. As I understand it, the concerns in both cases are similar, and so they will be argued together before the court. Both the Mennonite family that owns Conestoga and the Evangelical family who own Hobby Lobby object to the new requirement that their company health plans pay for abortion-causing drugs. A decision from the court is expected by July 2014.

The Catholic objection to the HHS Mandate (promulgated by the unelected “Catholic” official Kathleen Sebelius) is broader than the complaint in either of those cases. The Church does not simply object to the provision that Catholic-owned businesses, schools, and charities should have to pay for abortifacients; it also objects to the requirement that such institutions should also have to pay contraceptives, including female sterilization. Those may be lesser evils, but they are still evils.

As to whether Catholics in positions of authority (business owners, university presidents, etc.) can comply with the HHS mandate, I think Professor Michael Gorman is correct in noting that discussions of material vs. formal cooperation are beside the point. Catholics such as myself can get so fixated on informal interviews granted by Pope Francis that we forget that other bishops besides the Pope can also exercise teaching authority, the American bishops being no exception. As the American bishops have taught, beginning with their 2012 statement “United for Religious Freedom,” that complying with the Mandate violates Church teachings. As their most recent (November 13th, 2013) “Special Message” reiterates, the HHS Mandate “establishes a false architecture of religious liberty that excludes our ministries and so reduces freedom of religion to freedom of worship; it compels our ministries to participate in providing employees with abortifacient drugs and devices, sterilization, and contraception, which violates our deeply-held beliefs; and it compels our faithful people in business to act against our teachings, failing to provide them any exemption at all.”

In other words, you can comply with the HHS Mandate only if you wish to revoke your Christianity. Don’t worry about parsing the degree of your rejection of Christ.

But there is another point that is often missed in discussions of formal vs. material cooperation: why it matters. That is to say, what does cooperation with evil do to you, as a person? Why can’t a Catholic university president simply order that the university pay for abortions, while himself remaining personally opposed to abortion? “What’s the big deal?”, people ask–no one is asking him to have an abortion.

The understanding of the human being that undergirds such arguments is flawed; it understands humans to enjoy a god-like power of self-determination, a power unaffected by particular decisions and actions. But this is not the reality of the human situation. Rather, the reality is that we determine ourselves through our repeated actions. What you do or do not do matters. Over time, the university president who “objectively” supports abortion by allowing the university health plan to cover it will come to “subjectively” support abortion as well. By his helping to bring about evil, he becomes evil. The moral compromises we make leave their mark on us.

This is, of course, old hat to philosophy–a rather good reason to study it, I should add. Perhaps the most famous articulation of this malleability of human nature comes at the end of Pascal’s Wager, in which the would-be believer is urged to do the things that believers do if he wishes to come to belief (i.e. fake it ’til you make it). St. Thomas even saw this malleability of human nature as evidence of the divine order of things, in that there needed to be a creature like us to round out and complete the cosmos in its diversity: “of those things which naturally have a capacity for the complete good, one has it without action <God>, some with one action <angels>, and some with many actions <humans>.” Summa I-II, Question 5, article 7.

Those are “nice” examples of the malleability of human nature. Through repeated actions (which are themselves responses to grace) we bring ourselves to belief and ultimately, happiness with God. But the street runs both ways. Cooperating with and helping to bring about evil have the opposite effect on us. To be publicly supportive yet “personally opposed” to an evil is like holding your breath: it works for awhile, but you cannot do it indefinitely. Eventually, there comes the day when you no longer need to separate your public and private persona.

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