The narrative of Catholic defenders of religious liberty continues to be the same: “The injustice of the HHS mandate is about religious liberty and not about contraception.” Just before my appearance on The Drew Mariani Show on Relevant Radio on June 7th, a guest who was to organize a rally for religious liberty repeated these talking points. The day before, Bill Donahue, president of The Catholic League, was also a guest on the same show saying essentially the same thing. And among the Catholic hierarchy in the United States, many have went out of their way to stress that the federal government’s overreach, in compelling Catholic agencies to provide contraception against their conscience, has little to do with contraception itself but rather is exclusively a religious liberty issue.
Indeed, the high-profile Catholics who are on the front line defending religious liberty have undertaken a noble cause. However, they are parsing two truths which are indivisibly linked. I am afraid that defending religious liberty with half-truths will, in the end, undermine the preservation of religious liberty itself. After all, liberty cannot be divorced from morality for the very reason that liberty depends on sound morality.
On The Drew Mariani Show I said that it is not enough to say that the State cannot tell us what to do. In fact, the State can tell us what to do on certain matters such as safety. Catholic buildings or facilities, for instance, must provide a safe working environment and must also provide bathrooms and water for employees. Furthermore, minimum wage and equal opportunities laws must also be observed. This begs the question: What is the difference between the above mentioned mandates and the birth control mandate? Why does the State have the God-given authority to enforce the former but is guilty of coercion with that latter? The answer I keep hearing is that the latter mandate violates the Catholic conscience. But many defenders of the Catholic position on television and on the radio either admit that they do not agree with the Church’s teaching on contraception or, for those who do agree, they disavow that this violation of conscience rights has anything to do with the moral principle of contraception.
Can you imagine a similar defense of religious liberty being mounted in cases where the State compels Catholic agencies to adopt children to same-sex couples (which is happening in some States, by the way)? If Catholics were to argue that such an unjust overreach by the government is “not about homosexuality” but is rather about religious liberty, then they be guilty of a serious error; one that is more apparent in this case. Or if abortions were being mandated, can we rightly say that the injustice of such coercion it is not about killing children but rather has more to do with religious liberty or conscience rights? In either case, to insist that we focus exclusively on religious liberty and thus downplay the moral principle at hand is to seriously undermine the argument for religious liberty itself. Why is that? Well, because the dignity of human life and the sanctity of marriage are the pillars of liberty. That's right! You can say "good-bye" to any kind of liberty- civic or religious –if the right to life and the institution of marriage is compromised.
The same principle applies to the morality of contraception. Over the last five decades the separation of sex from procreation has led to the “general lowering of morality” in society; a prediction made by Pope Paul VI in 1968. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the institution of the family has been adversely affected by the widespread practice of birth control. It further has ushered in an era of demographic challenges we have yet to see the full effects of (i.e. a top- heavy elderly population with few workers and tax payers to support them). Therefore, it is the task of the Catholic spokesman who is out there on the front lines defending religious liberty to make the connection- for the public to see -between sexual morality and institutions such as the family. As Douglas Jerrod wrote in his book, The Future of Freedom: “It is not a coincidence but a consequence that, wherever the basic Christian institutions have been destroyed, so the powers and responsibilities of governments, even in Christian countries, have had to be increased until today the tasks of government, and the funds required to discharge them, are alike so great as to tax their utmost limits the resources of the richest peoples in the world.” (1938) Undoubtedly, religious and civic liberties diminishes in proportion as the power and responsibility of the State increases. For the love of God, the Church and the country we cannot and should not be ashamed or distance ourselves from God’s teaching on contraception. It is as old as humanity itself. Indeed, the teaching can be traced back, not only to the early Christians, but to the days of Genesis.
In short, teachers of Christian morality know that if they are to persuade their students about moral truth then it is every bit as important to explain the “why” as much as the “what” or the “how.” As such, to make a case for religious liberty as it pertains to the H.H.S. mandate we have to go beyond appealing to conscience rights. I understand to do so is an attempt to speak a language everyone can understand. To be sure, the reference to “conscience rights” is based on the natural law; but, by itself such an argument does not persuade the majority of people. Human rights are most intelligible and tenable when God’s rights are asserted. The fact that every human being is created by God, for God and in the likeness of God is the surest foundation for building a case for human rights and religious liberty. Such an argument is simple and easy to understand. To be sure, it is the most rational argument because every human being is owned, not by the State, but by God.
As it stands, Catholics who have generously dedicated their time and talents for the defense of religious liberty have omitted from their narrative the moral principle behind the Church's teaching on contraception. I regret to say that there has been a reluctance to assert the rights of God. To argue in the public square that the Catholic Church will not distribute birth control for the simple reason that it is a sin against God sounds utterly foolish to the world and to those who are arguing against the H.H.S. mandate on behalf of the Church. Not a few defenders of religious liberty have said on television, "I am a Catholic who happens to disagree with the Church's teaching on birth control. Nevertheless, I am opposed to the contraceptive mandate." And as for faithful Catholics, so as to not alienate their allies, they downplay the immorality of contraception and, as mentioned, put all the emphasis on the religious liberty.
To put the accent on religious and the immorality of contraception is just plain common sense. Still, if the clergy and laity alike never talk about the morality of contraception from pulpit, in the classrooms, in the newsroom and around the kitchen table; if we are not courageous enough to forge through the ridicule of others while insisting on God's rights and the moral principle behind sex and procreation; if we do not care enough for souls by communicating God's plan for their sexuality and married life; then can we expect the public to side with us for very long? Can we expect Washington D.C. or any governmental authority to have a "hands-off" policy with respect to the Church's position on birth control?
And another question: Can the defense against religious liberty against the HHS mandate really be that important if not a word about contraception is ever mentioned in Catholic venues? The Catholic position may evoke empathy and support from some people but this may not be the case for very long. As I mentioned on The Drew Mariani Show, the younger generations in high school, in college and in the young adulthood years are even more socially liberal than politicians in office today. Even if the U.S. Supreme Court should strike down Obamacare with its mandate and even if President Obama himself should be voted out of office, by the looks of the social and moral landscape in 2012 America, it would appear that the challenge to religious liberty and limited government will be with us for the foreseeable future. As such, people need to know the truth about God's rights and the moral absolutes which underscore liberty. If these truths are unintelligible to the public, then the defense of liberty and the sacrifice required for such a defense, can hardly sustain itself in the long run.