Some Catholics (and others) have couched their objection to the recent HHS mandate in terms of religious liberty. Their focus has been on the unreasonably narrow definition of what constitutes a religious organization, and on the lack of a proper exemption for religious employers who do not wish to provide coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortions. Such a focus is good and correct—the HHS mandate does blatantly infringe on the free exercise of religion. To focus only on this aspect of the mandate, however, is to miss an even more foundational point, namely, that contraception, sterilization, and abortion are really evil.
We are speaking, then, of two distinct but related problems with the HHS mandate. First, it seeks to increase the frequency of contraceptive acts, sterilizations, and abortions. Second, it seeks to coerce most employers to cooperate materially in providing for, and facilitating, such acts even if these employers have a conscientious or religious objection. While we have objected, and must continue to object strongly, to the second point (the infringement on freedom of conscience and religion), we must also vocally oppose the first point. Indeed, the second presupposes the first. The more fundamental problem with the HHS mandate, therefore, is the immorality of the acts themselves in which religious organizations are being “required” to cooperate.
When it comes to any policy that directly seeks to facilitate contraceptive acts and abortions, we cannot limit ourselves to an approach that would imply that such a policy is acceptable as long as it isn’t forced on Catholics (or other religious employers). Contraception, sterilization, and abortion are always wrong for everybody, regardless of their religious beliefs. We should be seeking to eradicate these evils altogether, not merely seeking an exemption from cooperating in them ourselves.
If we approach the HHS mandate only with a concern for the protection of conscience rights, and do not accompany this approach with a clear reiteration and explanation of the immorality of contraception, sterilization, and abortion, then the rest of the world could easily understand us to be embracing not only a de facto, but even a de iure, pluralism with regard to these moral issues. People might take us to be saying, in effect: “We’re not trying to limit access to contraception and abortion; we just don’t want Catholic institutions to be forced to provide it.” This would be misleading, for the Catholic position is not that Catholics should not contracept or abort; it is that no one should contracept or abort.
“Fair enough,” one might say, “but as a matter of fact, only Catholics (and a few others) really believe that contraception, sterilization, and abortion are always wrong. How is it right to limit access to these things for the majority of people who think they are good or even necessary?” If our approach were limited to focusing only on our own religious liberty, then we would have to concede that, yes, we should see no problem in allowing other institutions to facilitate access to such things. If we are only seeking respect for our own subjective beliefs, then we should also respect the subjective beliefs of others. What we are truly doing in combating the HHS mandate, however, is primarily seeking respect for the objective law of God and, secondarily, seeking respect for the freedom to follow that law.
The law of God, of which we are now speaking, is the natural law. This means that even without faith, people can and should recognize contraception, sterilization, and abortion to be intrinsically evil. It is true that the immorality of these acts is also contained in Christian revelation, and is more easily known with faith, but knowledge of the evil of contraception, sterilization, or abortion does not depend on Christian faith. Thus, coercing a Catholic university to provide for contraception is radically different from coercing a kosher deli to serve pork. The prohibition against eating pork belonged to the divine positive law given in the Old Testament, and so faith in the revelation of the Old Testament was required in order to recognize the validity of the prohibition. Recognizing the evil of contraception, sterilization, and abortion, however is evident purely from reflection on human nature, even apart from faith.
Given that many people, as a matter of fact, do not recognize the immorality of contraception, sterilization, and abortion, charity urges us to help them to form their consciences properly. If we love our neighbors, we must strive to promote their salvation and happiness. We cannot be satisfied to sit back, and watch our brothers and sisters of another religion, or of no religion, commit serious sins as long as we do not have to be part of it. No, we are our brother’s keeper, especially since faith makes it so much easier for us to develop a properly formed conscience.
Even if the HHS mandate included a broad exemption for religious employers, it would still require others to provide these immoral services. Individual business owners with properly formed consciences would not enjoy the exemption that a church or school might. No one should be coerced into providing for contraception, sterilization, or abortion. In fact, no one should be providing them at all. The most basic problem is not that the mandate seeks to coerce those who know better into breaking God’s law; it is that God’s law is being broken.
We are not wrong to object to the HHS mandate’s infringement on religious liberty. After all, this is a religious issue. More fundamentally, however, it is an issue of the natural law. If the increased availability of contraception, sterilization, and abortion by such a mandate is inevitable, then practically the best that we might be able to do right now is seek to limit these evils by obtaining proper exemptions. 1 Nevertheless, it should always be clear to the world that our own refusal to cooperate in these sins is due to the very fact that they really are sins, always and for everybody, and, also, that even if an exemption for religious employers is the best we can do right now, we will always strive to eliminate these evils altogether.
- Cf. John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, n. 73. ↩