"Should Catholic Employers Be Exempted From Paying For Health Insurance Covering Contraception?"

If you were reading Camels With Hammers regularly before we made the move to Freethought Blogs, you would have frequently been treated to the long, insightful, and vigorously argued comments of my friend Mary. Mary is a Roman Catholic and is politically liberal in many (but not all) respects. We met when I was a graduate student at Fordham University chaperoning out of state trips for the Fordham University Rose Hill mock trial team. Mary was on the team. She has since graduated and become a theology graduate student.

On Facebook she recently posted with approval an article from a Catholic Democrat angry over Obama administration requirements that the Catholic Church pay for insurance plans for employees that include contraception coverage whenever it hires both Catholics and non-Catholics alike as part of running universities, hospitals, social service agencies, or any other publicly accessible institutions with non-exclusively religious purposes. (At my recommendation Ophelia Benson responded to the article nicely at Butterflies and Wheels.)

Essentially, when the Catholic Church employs or serves non-Catholics and performs non-religious functions, it needs to offer all the same rights and protections that non-religious institutions are required to provide. Some Catholics, including some left-leaning ones, are up in arms alleging that this is tantamount to a violation of their rights to free exercise of religion. Mary is one of those outraged Catholics.

On the other hand, secularists, such as I, argue that governmental rules like these protect the consciences (which includes the religious consciences) of employees and the public. If a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist takes employment to teach or practice medicine at a Catholic institution, this should not interfere with her ability to get access to the contraception she needs in order to regulate her reproductive life according to her own conscience. The rights of conscience of particular Catholics, and of the Catholic Church collectively to believe and worship as it wishes, should not extend to a right to encumber the free exercise of conscience of everyone who they employ for non-religious functions. This is intrusive and authoritarian. If the Roman Catholic Church wants its employees—even the non-Catholic ones—to honor its moral dictates then it should trust them to freely obey.

Finally, I have been employed by Roman Catholic universities since 2000 (sometimes even working at two at a time). I studied for ten years at Fordham and received my doctorate there. The entire time I was there I was an atheist. I have happily never suffered the slightest discrimination. Not only was I free to write a dissertation which was highly critical of Christianity, I have received several valuable publishing opportunities from one of the department’s few Jesuit priest philosophers. My criticisms are on principle and do not come from any special animus or inherent suspicions of mainstream Roman Catholic institutions’ theoretical abilities to provide non-religious services to non-Catholics.

Mary and I have debated the merits of our respective positions and below is part one of our three part exchange:

Daniel Fincke: Could you please explain the positions of prominent Catholic leaders in the current political discourse about the application of the Affordable Care Act as it pertains to Catholic institutions, and explain why you agree or disagree with particular points?

Mary: Well, I do hesitate to speak on behalf of prominent Catholic leaders. The average “liberal” Catholic isn’t really reading Bishop Dolan’s blog. But I think that the best summation of it is in a press release from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, “Bishops and lay Catholic leaders across the United States have made it clear that we cannot comply with this unjust law without compromising our convictions and undermining the Catholic identity of many of our service ministries. This is not just another important issue among the many we need to be concerned about. This ruling is different. This ruling interferes with the basic right of Catholic citizens to organize and work for the common good as Catholics in the public square.”

And if I were to speak for what other people I know, other concerned Catholics, think on the issue it’s that the teaching against birth control is a long-standing teaching in the Catholic Church that is directly related to important issues regarding dignity of life. Many of those Catholics, like myself, would like to see a serious dialogue within the Church about its position on birth control and, God willing, a serious editing of those beliefs. But for most Catholics it’s less about the content of the teaching of birth control and more about the fact that the government is forcing Catholic institutions, though not employees of parishes, to provide it.

Daniel Fincke: Provide birth control or provide insurance plans which cover birth control?

Mary: To alter their insurance plans in such a way that provides the birth control pill to be used for contraceptive purposes.

My fundamental disagreement with the issue lies in that dichotomy – that my priests and their secretaries get to continue to use their insurance plans as they are because they cater to a Catholic community and do “religious” work, but the teachers who teach at the adjoining elementary school are subject to the change. I think it is a terribly narrow definition of religious and religious activity. No Church, especially no Catholic Church, could ever submit to a definition of religion that is confined to masses and funerals.

I also think I should lay my cards on the table – I know very few people actually employed by a religious institution – at least very few well enough to talk about insurance benefits. So whether or not certain dioceses provide birth control or not, I really don’t know. I imagine some do.

Daniel Fincke: That’s not true that no church could submit for legal or practical purposes to a definition of religion that is confined to distinctly religious functions like masses, funerals, and distinctly religious teachings. There is nothing inherently religious about teaching or practicing medicine or arranging adoptions.

These are strictly speaking religiously neutral activities except in the case of specifically theological teaching—and even that is only religious in character when approached a certain way. The Catholic Church fully understands this in practice otherwise they would not regularly hire non-Catholics to perform these functions. If they are religious functions, they would require Catholics to perform them—just as catechism classes and funerals and masses need to be presided over by Catholics. Also Churches want to claim a secular function that legitimizes government subsidies for their charity work. If there is no separation in principle from a church’s secular and religious functions then the government is funding religion by giving grants or other advantages to putatively public (not religious) services done by churches.

Mary: I think the question of government subsidy is an important one. A part of me would love to see the government stop subsidizing religious charities if for not other reason then I could stop hearing atheists bring it up. But another part of me recognizes that the government subsidizes any private charity, religious or not, because that charity performs services in a certain way that saves the government time and money. But I do think the government should reevaluate its subsidy of religious charities.

It’s very hard for me to answer these criticisms without waxing theological because the answers seem deeply obvious to me on a theological level but that’s not at all what we’re doing here so I’ll try not to.

Daniel Fincke: That’s because part of living in a pluralistic, non-theocratic, civil society with secular laws means bracketing one’s personal theologies or conceptions of the good where respect for other institutions is necessary. You need to think in secular civil terms when in the secular, civil sphere—regardless of how you want to square that with what you privately hold theologically.

Mary: 50 years ago, there would have been almost no non-Catholic employees at the average Church-related institution, even universities. The majority of university faculty were male religious and there were few, though very few, non-Catholic employees. The regular hiring of non-Catholic employees came with two related things: the transforming of schools away from being owned and operated by religious orders to being owned and operated by lay boards of trustees that still retained religious and Vatican II which overturned centuries of Church teaching and gave a teaching on religious freedom.

This religious freedom teaching allowed many institutions, especially the Catholic university, the ability to dialogue with, engage with and work with people who weren’t Catholic. It’s a lot easier for a Jew to teach at a Catholic school when Catholics no longer call him a “Christ killer” by way of official Church teaching.

But this change didn’t come because suddenly Catholic universities recognized that they were participating in a public function that was distinct from Church ministry or that their university functions were no longer “religious” but that a serious theological shift took place within the Church that redefined how Catholics are expected to engage non-Catholics.

But Catholic universities and hospitals still maintained deep commitments, stated in mission statements and other ways, to working *as* the Church in the world.

Daniel Fincke: The theological reasoning process by which Catholicism opened up to modernity should not be determinative of secular law though. Once the Church decides to engage with outsiders and participate more inclusively with the rest of civil society, it cannot dictate all the terms of that interaction. The consciences of the non-Catholics it invites into its institutions matter also.

Mary: But every Church activity is a private one insofar as the Church only dictates the values of its own religious institutions. It would be an “imposition” if the Church forced its views on an atheist organization. It’s imposing its religious views on its own institutions. But I would like to address what you said about consciences – I think that is an extremely important issue.

Daniel Fincke: It is an imposition if the Church forces its views on its atheist employees too. Just because this is happening in a private university or hospital does not mean that public laws should not apply. And if the new law requires employees’ rights to contraception to be respected, the Catholic Church has no right to impose on the consciences of atheists, Protestants, Jews, or whomever else wants that right fulfilled. Private organizations are not lawless.

Even were the Church to employ only Catholics and serve only Catholics in a hospital, say, they should not be exempt from controls to make sure their medical practices are legitimate. People have rights of conscience against their Churches too. Religious people should not be forced to surrender basic rights of equal protection. For example, if a Catholic woman suffering domestic abuse were employed by a Catholic hospital, the hospital should not have the right to fire her if she gets a divorce against Catholic teaching which forbids them. Basic employee protections are in place to protect such abuses from private institutions, churches included. It is this arrogance and authoritarianism of the Church which thinks of itself as totally unfettered in administering the law within its institutions that is responsible for the entire decades or centuries of abuse of children with impunity. This attitude that Catholics are the property of the Catholic Church for it to dictate to them against their consciences without complaint is anti-democratic and must not be catered to by a secular, pluralistic society built on freedom of conscience.

Mary: Ok, allow me to answer your points. There’s nothing worse than the “well they don’t have to work there if they don’t like it!” argument. Especially in academia, jobs are so hard to come by that it would certainly not be indicative of religious charity in any way to say that someone should just pack up and find somewhere else to work – a somewhere that might not exist. But when any professor goes to work for any private school, or a doctor at a hospital, you are introduced to the “mission” of the school. So I’m sure in your employment at Fordham and Fairfield you were told of the explicitly religious mission of those schools that still maintained deep commitments to freedom of speech, anti-discrimination (in a perfect world) whatever. Now you are deeply hostile to religion and still chose to teach there, something I’m sure came from a place of discernment and you followed your conscience in teaching at both of those schools. I respect that choice in anyone.

Now anyone who knows anything about Catholic teaching it’s that Catholic teaching seems to hate the idea of anyone controlling birth and abortion. So there should be no thought in anyone’s mind that that institution would go out of its way, in any way, to provide either of those services. Some people understand this as an inconvenience and a burden and other people are deeply offended by the Church’s teaching on these issues. I think anyone deeply offended by the Church’s teaching on those issues who still works in that place is violating his or her conscience immediately. I would never teach or work at Ave Maria University, Christendom College, Franciscan or Thomas Aquinas College because I am deeply at odds with the missions of those schools. If Catholic feelings toward contraception were secretive and only revealed after an employee started working there, I could understand, but no one should be surprised if Notre Dame doesn’t provide birth control for contraceptive purposes.

And people, do, indeed, have conscience rights against Churches. They’re exercised all the time. 98% of Church going Catholics use methods of birth control considered sinful by their Church. Catholics divorce at a rate as high as all other religious organizations and atheists. Catholics get abortions. The Church doesn’t follow people around asking them what they do and the conscience is supposed to be respected. Unfortunately, it isn’t always respected. The nun who was excommunicated for allowing an emergency abortion to be performed is a great example – that woman did what she thought was the right thing to do and was punished for it and it was in no way right.

And I agree that the authoritarian attitude of the Church is so dangerous and harmful. The sexual abuse scandal that ran rampant for 40 years and, to this day, has hardly been sufficiently punished by civil authorities is just one example of that. Reading some of the case files of how priests used judges with Catholic sympathies to have their charges dismissed are so disturbing it makes you want to kill yourself, frankly.

But this isn’t the Church telling it’s employees that if they use birth control they’ll be fired or if they get divorced they’ll be fired – but that they won’t provide the service because it’s contrary to their teaching. I think that’s an important distinction.

Daniel Fincke: But why does being employed by an institution make you subject to its “teaching” in ways that restrict your own abilities to pursue your own reproductive freedom? Should CEOs arbitrarily dictate their “teachings” to their employees? These are people hired for non-religious functions. I’m there to teach the philosophy course, not to serve any religious functions. The Church should have no say whatsoever what I do with my paychecks. I render services, they pay me. Their abilities to dictate my conscience are constrained to those which are contractual and reasonable related to my function as a philosophy professor. They do not extend to my reproductive freedom.

Continued here.

Concluded here.

Bonus discussion with Mary on other issues related to Catholicism here.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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