Why Catholics Want Their Religious Freedom

Previously on Cornerstone, scholars discussed the implications of the recent Hobby Lobby decision for religious freedom and explored the wider function of religion in American public life. This week, we asked respondents to consider why contraceptives specifically are at issue in the case and to examine the lack of consensus on their use among religious and public interest groups.

By: Margaret Harper McCarthy

In the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, the family-owned corporation at the center of the Supreme Court case has become a rallying point for some and the object of ridicule for many others. Soon a humble religious order, the Little Sisters of the Poor, will be dragged under the legal spotlight of the HHS contraceptive mandate. What is unique about the Little Sisters, however, is that they refuse to sign a form which hands over the distribution of contraceptives to a third-party, their insurer, the Christian Brothers Employee Benefits Trust, which, as it happens, is already exempted from the mandate. “What’s all the fuss about this ‘meaningless form?’” asks the government in its case against the Little Sisters? We might ask the same thing. Why risk everything, the very existence of their many homes for the aged poor, just because of a “meaningless form”? The answer, of course, has something to with religious freedom. But, what is it about contraception that, even in the most indirect relation to it, puts our religious freedom into question? 

It is hard not to notice how many are willing to curtail these religious freedom rights, and rights of conscience, by requiring people to pay for—indirectly in this case—what they conscientiously object to. The current administration offers a clue to the reason for this. Its frequent use of “balance” suggests an underlying conflict of rights which, in this case, clearly tips the balance to the side of those rights that citizens allegedly have to be given by every employer (at no cost, no less): contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. Why is this? What exactly is it about these things that claims of conscience can be trumped so readily in the minds of many? What is it about these things that they must be at all costs protected and be so accessible that one wouldn’t even have to pay one dollar for them? More to the point, what is it about pregnancy that there can be no obstacles in the way of a “cure” for it (abortafacient pills) or “protection” (contraception/sterilization) from it?

The stakes are clearly high for those who are placing the new demands on the Church (and others). On the other hand, the stakes are high for the Church as well, so much so that if she ceded, she and her institutions would cease to be themselves. One thing the HHS mandate has done, in everyone’s favor, is to clear away any lingering doubts about the two long-standing competing anthropologies that now underlie this struggle. 

Some have called the prevailing anthropology of liberalism a “negative anthropology” because its “free and independent self” doesn’t have any particular content. It is set on the future. We “create our own story,” “chart our own course,” and “establish our goals,” which we then set out to fulfill. Allan Bloom described this modern self tellingly in the Closing of the American Mind: “[He] can be anything [he] wants to be, [though he has] no particular reason to want to be anything in particular.” With respect to the past, we have “lightened our load” and “have no inherited or unconditional connection with anything or anyone.” We don’t dwell in the given—place, family, heritage, tradition—which for us now is “baggage,” hemming us in with actual content. As for our relations to others, we are not by nature bound to them. We have “relationships” instead, in the manner of two isolated un-related beings together on a cruise ship for a while, knowing that they will eventually get off and part ways.

All of this is governed by a certain idea of freedom. The famous Kennedy decision says it all: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." The key here is choice, where choice means many alternatives of equal availability. This choice, then, would be our common good. We all choose. And what we all choose is to choose to define, among other things, the mystery of human life. Finally, accompanying the self-defining, future-oriented self is the state, whose chief job is to prevent anyone from getting in its way. The state “protects” the self.

If there has been one hold out in the project of generating the new self, it has been the body. If you take a look at the body, in its sexual differentiation especially, there is a kind of brake placed on the self-defining, unbound, future-oriented, choice-making self. There is something in the way. There is always another bodily manner of being human standing in front of us, and then, of course, there are the possible children—more things in the way! The body is decidedly not self-referential. So, it must now become plastic, moldable, to conform to the new self. And thanks especially to biotechnology, it is indeed following its orders.

Here, again, the state must be called in for “protection.” With contraception, we see more clearly what exactly the citizen is being protected from. Many have noted that with the mandate, pregnancy is being treated like a disease. Indeed, others noted long ago that when medicine got into the business of contraception it “crossed the Rubicon,” since it began to prevent what is a sign of a perfectly healthy and well-functioning reproductive system. However, this observation presumes that the purpose of medicine is to cure a body of disease and bring it back to health. If, however, the human being has changed, then perhaps so has the purpose of healthcare. With contraception and the like, we get a glimpse of this change. With pregnancy, we are dealing with something other than a mere disease we want to cure or accident we want to prevent. It is, rather, a choice. What these newly state-mandated and absolutely free services aim to do then is to “protect our rights”—especially those of women. The new patient, who is defining the meaning of her life, happiness, and existence, must always be free to choose, and by so doing, stay in control.

Perhaps, after forty years of experience of contraception under our belt, we can now catch a glimpse of this anthropology underneath all of the human wreckage that has piled up in its wake: an anonymous hook-up culture; perpetually adolescent males who frustrate women by not dating them, committing to them, or giving them children when they finally do; the humiliating experience of the fertility treatments that these same women undergo when they finally give up; the physical toll of the pill on women, and on men as well, through the water supply. Might these results of the experiment not at the very least put questions in our heads about the current doctrine of the self, its well-being, its freedom, and its happiness? 

There is another anthropology. It looks to the human body and its tell-tale signs, and sees a being for whom things like being a child, a wife or husband, and becoming a mother or a father are the very ingredient of—not impediments to—the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. It is the ancient anthropology of the “social animal,” which was taken up in into the Christian idea of the “image of God” (who is a communion), fixed as it was in the nature of the human being at creation itself. This is what underlies the Catholic Church’s understanding of sex, marriage, and the family: a being who comes from another (through birth) and faces another (through sexual difference) and risks to be bound to him or her totally and forever (through sexual union) and to all of the surprising events that might come along from within that union in the course of time (openness to children).

In the face of all of the sorrow that has resulted from the denial of these things—and the many reproductive technologies that allow us to keep living in denial—we might just give the Catholic Church a hearing on these issues. We might, in other words, ask what the Catholic Church wants its religious freedom for—and why the Little Sisters of the Poor won’t sign that “meaningless little form.” 

Margaret Harper McCarthy has been teaching at the Lateran University's Pontifical John Paul II Institute since 1992 and is the director of the Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research at the John Paul II Institute.

This piece was originally authored on August 6, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/6/28/why-catholics-want-their-religious-freedom-1