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February 28, 2012
The larger issue behind the contraception mandate
By Russell Shaw *

By Russell Shaw *

As the controversy over the Obama administration’s January directive to religious institutions to pay for employees’ contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-inducing drugs was heating up, Michael Gerson—a conservative columnist frequently friendly to the Church’s views—speculated on the reasoning behind this provocative move.

“The Obama administration seems to have calculated that, since contraceptives are popular and the Catholic Church is not, the outcry would be isolated,” Gerson wrote.

Leaving aside whether the administration actually thought that, as well as the element of exaggeration in the formulation, there’s a core element of truth here that serious Catholics need to face. In some quarters at least, the Church really is unpopular.

The question isn’t whether, but why.

A comprehensive answer would far exceed the space available. Countless individuals and groups have countless quarrels with the Church over countless grievances, real or imaginary. Let me speak of just one group—America’s secular establishment—which is of particular relevance in the present context.

By “secular establishment,” I mean the cluster of people who dominate America’s secular culture and its institutions—the great universities, the national media, the big foundations and think tanks, and now of course the White House.

It’s fair to say these people for the most part subscribe to a world view in which traditional religion does not play a large role. They are not just “secular” but secularists—secular ideologues—for whom a certain coolness (I use as neutral a word as possible) toward the Catholic Church comes naturally.

They also share a particular approach to resolving ethical questions. Pope Benedict famously spoke of the “dictatorship of relativism,” and that is one way to express it. Another way, highlighting the sources of antipathy to the Church, is along the following lines.

The Catholic Church adheres to an ethic of substantive human purposes—things like life, truth, and justice—that establish the parameters of ethically acceptable choices and behavior. To do the right thing is to act within these boundaries; to do what is wrong is to act outside them.

The secularist mindset, by contrast, favors a libertarian ethic of process and procedure—values like democracy, equal opportunity, and that epitome of the process ethic, the “right to choose.” To be sure, most people rightly live by a mix of values of both kinds—partly substantive, partly procedural—but the differences in emphasis are real and often extremely important.

According to the process ethic, there is in principle no such thing as absolute right and wrong—no substantive good that can’t be violated in a pinch if violating it furthers the exercise of choice by a sufficient number of persons.

So what if making religious institutions part of a system for providing contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients (this is what Obama’s February “accommodation” would do) violates the consciences of people with traditional views on matters of substantive right and wrong?

The overriding procedural imperative of the secular culture requires permitting, even subsidizing, the choices of those who want these things.

A Washington Post columnist called President Obama’s purported concession to of the bishops’ objections to the contraception-sterilization-abortifacient mandate (a proposal hailed even by some Catholic individuals and groups) “a dodge—a quite clever and positive one.” So it was—a skillful procedural sleight-of-hand aimed not at upholding some strongly held standard of right and wrong but doing a deal.

Meanwhile the Catholic Church stands as the principal obstacle to realization of the secularists’ procedural paradise of all-but unconditional choice. However the current controversy ends, this larger conflict will continue.

Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books, including three novels and volumes on ethics and moral theology, the Catholic laity, clericalism, the abuse of secrecy in the Church, and other topics. He has also published thousands of articles in periodicals, among them The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, L’Osservatore Romano, America, Crisis, Catholic World Report, The National Catholic Reporter, and many others. From 1967-1987 he served as communications director for the U.S. Catholic bishops and from 1987-1997 was information director for the Knights of Columbus. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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