A mighty debate is taking place in the USA between the Obama administration and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The issue revolves around religious freedom and the right of Catholic institutions to exclude coverage of contraceptives in their health care plans. On January 20th it was announced that the religious exemption is not in effect. All nonprofits that presently do not provide contraceptive coverage will have one’s years grace to comply with the new regulation.
As you can imagine, internet discussion boards and editorials are heating up on both sides of the issue. Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter wrote an especially scathing piece titled J’ACCUSE! Why Obama is wrong on the HHS conscience regulations, going so far as to withdraw his vote for Obama. The ensuing discussion board makes for an interesting read – though an extremely l-o-n-g one. A rough survey of responses shows more people siding with the right to a woman’s access to contraception than those who stand up for the teachings of Humanae Vitae.
The best responses, I believe, are those that look beyond the polarizing rhetoric of good Catholic-bad Catholic. The core issue is whether we believe in our personal freedom of conscience. I believe in it, but it comes with responsibilities. (see an informed conscience…please!)
Bishops’ conscience model makes light of practical reason by David DeCosse is a well-written and logical appeal to respecting the gift of conscience,
At present, the model of conscience used by most bishops is problematic in two ways. First, it emphasizes obedience, law, and hierarchical authority and thus departs from the Catholic tradition’s close linkage of conscience, practical reason, and freedom. Second, on account of this departure, these bishops needlessly lapse into using a sectarian model of the Catholic conscience ill-suited to the Church’s mission in a democratic pluralist society like the United States.
An emphasis on obedience and law can provide an easy, black and white paradigm of morality. The Church says this…therefore if I do this and don’t do that, then I am good. But,
the bishops’ emphasis on law as the pre-eminent category of conscience means that they leave little room for practical reasoning to help the conscience figure out what to do in the face of complexity.
Almost all women and men know the “face of complexity” when it comes to conception. Discerning when to have children, and how many is not an easy issue. It has huge practical consequences that cannot be written off with a naive and pietistic pronouncement to be ‘always open to life’.
Our parents came from the generation that saw the dawning of effective birth control, but were preached to by priests of their intrinsic evil. The choice given to them was simple. Be open to raising large families, or suffer the guilt of mortal sin and eternal punishment. Raising children in a larger family is a gift. But it is not a gift to all. How many families faced physical, emotional, and economic hardships out of obedience to the law.
I also heard stories of compassionate priests who would counsel couples to “follow their own conscience” in the matter. And, God bless them!