"What Are The Limits of Church Authority In the Public Sphere?"

This is part 2 of a debate with Roman Catholic theology graduate student named Mary. In part 1, we introduced and began to debate the topic of whether or not universities, hospitals, and social agencies run by the Catholic Church should be exempted from laws requiring employers to provide their employees health insurance that covers contraception. In this portion of the discussion our primary focus is on what constitutes arbitrary vs. legitimate acts of control by the Roman Catholic Church in the public sphere. This post should be understandable apart from the larger discussion.

Daniel Fincke: You grasp that the Catholic Church is an institution with an abusive authoritarian history and yet you want to give it special exemption to deny its employees fundamental reproductive rights. Based on religious teachings. In a secular society. How is that not legitimizing the above-the-law-authoritarianism of the Church? How does that protect even all those divorcing and contraception-using Catholics from their Church legally?

Mary: Raping children is not a religious activity – it’s not part of church teaching. So those actions are not in any way above civil law. They weren’t performed as part of a Church mission or by the authority of a Church institution. But the services of universities and hospitals are.

Daniel Fincke:  The decisions to deal with the rapists “internally” as though their “punishments” were all that were morally necessary was a matter of ecclesiastical hubris.

Mary: Yea, it was disgusting. And the idea like “no you can’t arrest our bishop” was absurd. Of course the bishop can be arrested if he’s complicit in sexual abuse. He can be and he should be.

I don’t seek to give the Church any more exemption than it is afforded by the constitution (I hate saying “the constitution” by the way, it reminds me of Sarah Palin). No law can be passed that prohibits the free exercise of religion. This law prohibits the free exercise of religion.

And, fortunately, neither of the Catholic schools you teach at are stopping you from buying birth control, they just aren’t providing it for you. They aren’t paying for the service. If you spent an entire year’s salary on yaz and condoms, they wouldn’t do anything about it. But they won’t pay for it.

Daniel Fincke: The Church does not have to pay for the contraception in this case either. They just have to pay for health insurance. The insurance providers pay for the contraception. Paying for health insurance is no formally different than paying money to an individual.

Mary: Right they pay for health insurance that is required by law to provide it.

Daniel Fincke: Yes, as they are required to pay money in general, lest they be slave holders. And there are understandings with money that you are going to pay for food and shelter and entertainment, etc. But the Church by providing that money does not make my purchases for me or have religious rights to dictate how I spend it. And when paying people with health insurance they do not determine how I may exercise my religious rights to control my reproduction. This is forcing people into pregnancies, Mary. It’s dictating they have families or be celibate as a condition of employment.

Mary: Your first point is interesting. How is it different if I simply spend my own money on birth control? But if you pay an insurance provider to provide health services, it is understood that the insurance provider is going to provide medical services, some of which are deeply contrary to that institution’s protected values. Whereas, while it is assumed a professor is going to spend his salary on food, shelter, entertainment, the truth is that you may have been born a millionaire and that you could spend all of that money on booze and hookers. The money paid to an insurance provider definitely goes to healthcare. The money paid to to an employee doesn’t definitely go anywhere.

I don’t really see how it’s dictating to employees they have families or forces anyone into pregnancies. If there was substantial data that people who work for religious institutions were saddled with more unwanted pregnancies than at other places, I could understand. But this merely says that if you want to control reproduction, which almost everyone does, then you have to do it with your own money because we won’t pay for it. I do not use oral birth control and I’ve been preventing pregnancy through non-abstinence methods for years now. The reluctance of the two Catholic universities I’ve been at now to write prescriptions for birth control have had no effect on my ability to control birth.

Daniel Fincke: But the law is changing to make such basic human necessities as health care accessible to all. Putting the burden on people to go beyond their employers’ health insurance is onerous and some people will not be able to afford it and the aim of the Church here is to keep those people from using birth control by excluding it from their insurance. The Church’s aim is to coerce them into pregnancies they wish to prevent, by not honoring their autonomous wishes to use their insurance to control their own reproductive rights in the manner they wish. The Church’s aims are not to exercise their religion but to impose it. Members of the Church are free to voluntarily abstain from using contraception. No member of the Church will be forced to use it. The Church will not even be forced to directly pay for it any more than any of us directly pay for any services the government provides with our tax money. Even ones different groups dislike.

Mary: Well some people won’t be able to afford oral birth control. Presumably other methods would still be available. And I think I would say “discourage” rather than “keep.” But I guess that’s a matter of opinion. I think there is a difference between what is taken by taxes and what institutions provide – institutions already have the right to decide what sort of coverage they will provide. For example, my parents’ insurance (that I am, thankfully, still on) provides just about anything you could need. My brother’s insurance from Lowe’s doesn’t have dental and certain things aren’t available to him. Even after this government mandate, some insurance providers will still provide certain things that other insurance providers don’t – but here the government is imposing something deeply offensive to a religious institution and saying “either don’t provide insurance for your employees or provide this.”

Daniel Fincke: But that deep offensive does not have a secularly justifiable reason. What if the Catholic Church finds deep offense at a gay marriage and refuses health coverage for a gay spouse? What if the Catholic Church takes deep offense at employing divorced Catholics or non-Catholics? There are non-discrimination acts for a reason. Gay marriage is legal in New York. Should gay people lose their rights because they are employed by the Catholic Church for non-religious jobs?

Being religiously offended is not the same as deserving civil accommodation for your arbitrary feelings when they impact people who are outside the sphere of your private exercise of religion. Religions cannot be bastions of intolerable discrimination. That’s not equal protection under the law for the groups they vilify and want to disenfranchise.

Mary: Well all religious feeling, all religious teaching and all religious practice is arbitrary in strictly secular terms. All authority comes from God whose authority isn’t recognized by the state. But that doesn’t mean it’s not protected. Because it is. But I think there is a distinction between the contraception issue and gay spouses or whatever.

While many religious institutions will fight extremely hard to deny health insurance to the legally recognized spouses of homosexuals, it is not the same thing as doing the wedding service. For one thing, while no Church institutions would recognize “spouse,” many are willing to make concessions for legally-domiciled adult. Furthermore, strong moral arguments can be made that it is more important to keep a gay spouse healthy than it is to deny they exist. If we take the case of gay marriage and use it as an analogy for this contraception case, the government is forcing the Church to marry gays – not just to pay them fairly and treat them fairly. The latter is expected equal protection under the law, the former is a first amendment violation.

If Church-related institutions start firing people who use their fairly-earned salaries to buy birth control, then we can have a different conversation. But right now the government is forcing the Church to provide it. Well actually it’s only forcing Church-related schools and hospitals. The employees of parishes and of diocesan-related activities like youth ministers or secretaries to bishops and the like will still be exempted on the basis of a religious conscience clause—because the lady balancing the books at the priests’ house is performing a “religious” function but the 7th grade religion teacher isn’t.

Daniel Fincke: No, again, the government is not forcing the Church to provide it, it is forcing all employers—including the Church—to purchase health insurance plans that may cover contraception.

But, to your initial point, yes, all strictly religious feelings and beliefs are arbitrary and that’s why only the ones that have a secular justification should be respected in the public sphere and only the ones that are not excessively injurious to individuals should be tolerated within religious institutions.

Within religious institutions you have greater latitude to your capricious values and beliefs. You may discriminate against marrying gays, you may enjoin battered women to stay in their abusive marriages because Jesus forbids divorcing (unless your wife cheats, of course). But you can’t do the beating yourself or withhold necessary health care from your kids, etc. There are limits even in the private exercise of religion.

And in the public sphere, when you want to employ and service people outside your faith or perform functions that are not distinctly religious (no matter how much you want to personally interpret them as acts of devotion to God), you need to be subject to the same laws, honor the consciences and health needs of others just as everyone else does. You need more than capricious feelings to justify exemptions from public laws that serve to enforce the rights and dignity of other people in the public.

And it is irrelevant that you think the Church could have some rationales for accommodating gay spouses. The point is that by your assertion of the right of “deep offense” to trump all laws, the Church would be equally in their rights to deny to cover such a spouse and contribute to the well-functioning of such an “unholy” union as they would be in their rights to deny contraception and contributing to the prevention of unwanted pregnancies.

The point is that your principle of “religious offense” would be a “get out of equal protection” pass which could cover all manner of bigotry beyond the cathedral walls. Even as things stand, Catholic adoption agencies want to refuse to let gays adopt—even while they accept public funds! They want to prohibit abortions in their hospitals, forcing women, even those with life threatening pregnancies, to become mothers (or die!), unless they can escape to another hospital quickly enough or can afford or have convenient access to another hospital, etc. They want to allow pharmacists to get in the way of having people’s prescriptions for contraception filled.

In all these and more cases, they want their “offense” to trump other people’s rights to legal services that hospitals or social service agencies are expected to provide. Your “offense” fiat would cover all of this, and justify gay spouses not being covered under health care plans.

Mary: Well perhaps I should say, “deeply contradictory to the Church’s beliefs in such a way that forcing them to do it would prohibit their ability to act freely as a Church.” The point that I hold, and hope that I have made to some degree of coherency, is that there is a difference between a Church-related institution discriminating against someone and a Church-related institution being forced to provide a service contrary to its teachings.

They are not “equally” with in their rights to discriminate against any legally-recognized spouse, because they don’t have to do the wedding mass. They aren’t being forced to arbitrate divorces by the state. But here they are actually being forced into doing something that violates their religion. It’s forcing them to be proactive in something that is against their teaching. This means that Church-related institutions would have to serve only Catholics and hire only Catholics. That does prohibit their freedom to function as religious institutions.

I still believe that Church-related institutions need seriously to consider the funding it takes from the government and the strings that come attached. The link you posted last year about the adoption agency that simply shut down rather than provide services to gay couples—it’s certainly not what I would personally want because that doesn’t match my views. But I think it was the right thing to do. Don’t take the government’s money if you don’t want to play by the government’s rules. But in most cases, the government provides funding not because they just love nuns or whatever, but because it is in the government’s best interest for services to be run by more locally-administered private institution. And it is well-within its rights to withdraw funding when discrimination is taking place within those private institutions. In this case the government is not saying “we allow you to submit your students for national humanities grants so provide abortions!” they’re saying, “you have to provide contraception whether you’re completely financially free of us or not.”

Daniel Fincke: They are not being asked to provide the contraception. Only the health insurance which may cover contraception. And it’s troubling that you are equating the ability to function as a religious organization with never making accommodations to freedom of conscience of other people on something as non-central to uniquely Catholic belief as the issue of contraception. It’s not like they have to deny the divinity of Jesus.

They argue for their position against contraception putatively on natural law grounds. They derive it as a matter of philosophy, not strictly as a theological matter. They have to recognize, as all of us do, that our rights to impose our private views on metaphysics in ways that unduly burden others are limited.

That’s what it means to live in a secular society. And being financially free, again, is not the issue here. The issue in this case is not government strings attached to money, it’s being an employer of the public and accepting limitations on your ability to do that in distinctly religious ways. You can only do private actions in wholly uncompromised religious ways.

Mary: Well, you’re right, it’s not a Catholic belief. But religious systems are not simply systems of beliefs statements which one must affirm or not affirm, they also have moral teachings and those moral teachings are central to the daily lives of their followers.

As for the natural law grounds of denying contraception, I’m in no position to debate natural law. It is my understanding that natural law is neither natural nor a law and that it is falling out of favor, even with the Church, as a method for defending the Church’s moral teachings. I understand the Church’s teaching on contraception but outside of any natural law claims.

And the Church’s ability to impose its views is limited—to its own institutions and even then to its own actions. It doesn’t force its employees not to buy birth control, it says it won’t pay for it. So it is actually quite limited indeed.

Begun 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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