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Diffusing responsibility

Jennifer Manning

There’s a phenomenon in social psychology known as the “diffusion of responsibility,” namely, a person is less likely to claim responsibility for an action (or inaction, as the case may be) if there are others present.  When more people are present, responsibility is divided and each individual feels less responsible for taking action. 

The current legal battle regarding the implementation of the Department of Health and Human Services so-called “contraception mandate,” especially with regard to the Little Sisters of the Poor, is both intriguing and maddening. There is an excellent, straightforward analysis of the decisions thus far here, but in short, technically, the Sisters qualify for an exemption if they will fill out a form, the EBSA (Employee Benefit Security Administration.)

At first blush this seems to be a win-win solution, as it seems to put sufficient distance between the Sisters and the controversial mandate to provide contraceptives and abortifacients. But if, in fact, the Sisters agree to sign the EBSA (Employee Benefit Security Administration), “They believe it puts them at the start of a chain of events that leads inevitably to mandated coverage of the disputed services.  That filled-out form, they contend, simply ‘deputizes’ a plan operator to provide the services.” Therefore the Sisters have not agreed to sign the EBSA form and instead are continuing their legal battle with the Department of Health and Human Services.

In the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus called the Sisters’ legal argument “hooey.”  She writes, “it transforms a good-faith attempt to accommodate into a sinister vehicle of co-option. The Sisters contend that signing the form implicates them in a morally repugnant scheme, allowing their employees to obtain contraceptive coverage elsewhere. By this logic, so does issuing paychecks used to pay for birth control.”

So why won’t these pesky nuns just sign the form already?

In fact, the Sisters’ legal argument is far from “hooey,” the Sisters have most likely based their legal objection on centuries of Catholic moral theology and philosophy, specifically an area known as “cooperation in evil.”  There are guidelines in place to determine one’s degree of responsibility for participation in what may be perceived to be an evil act—for example, one may be guilty of formal cooperation in evil (willing cooperation in the evil act),  implicit formal cooperation (when the cooperator’s will cannot be distinguished from the person acting), or material cooperation (when the cooperator does an act that is not in itself evil, but which helps another person do an evil act).  Professor Dana Dillon, a fellow Catholic Voice, lays out a clear framework of the principles of cooperation in relation to the HHS mandate here.  To determine exactly what type of cooperation signing this form amounts to requires a more in-depth analysis, but I would offer that one thing is certain: the sisters cannot, in good conscience, take part in an act that will lead to something they deem to be gravely immoral.  Much to the chagrin of the administration, the diffusion of responsibility is not an option here.  This “sinister vehicle of co-option” is not to be overlooked; passing the responsibility to another makes the Sisters complicit in something they deem to be gravely immoral.

This whole debate begs the question: Why is the government demanding that the oldest running institution in the history of the world give up one of its core tenets, that is to defend all human life in all stages?  Why is it outrageous that the Sisters believe that by signing the EBSA, they feel they will ““abandon their religious convictions and participate in the government’s system to distribute and subsidize contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs and devices?, as Marcus puts it.

What is the “good” for society that we are after here? Clear thinking on these issues could just preserve out God-given right to religious freedom.

Topics: Abortion , Church teaching , Contraception , Current Events , Faith , Ministry , Pro-Life , Social justice

Jennifer Manning is a Catholic schoolteacher in Massachusetts and a volunteer with Catholic Voices USA.

View all articles by Jennifer Manning

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