Moral theologians reject Catholic writer's defense of HHS mandate

davidgibson Catholic writer David Gibson

Moral theologians have dismissed a Catholic writer's attempt to defend the revised contraception mandate, saying his own application of traditional moral theology is flawed and misleading.

“He's presuming that the HHS mandate is going to be imposed, and that Catholics have to figure out a way to live with it,” Father Thomas Petri said about David Gibson's defense of the mandate in USA Today.

“That's precisely what the Church is fighting against – saying 'No, it shouldn't be imposed!'”

Fr. Petri, a Dominican priest who teaches moral theology at Providence College in Rhode Island, spoke with CNA about the errors of Gibson's Feb. 14 article entitled “Contraception objections fail Catholic's (sic) moral reasoning.”

The Dominican said that Gibson, a Catholic writer for Religion News Service, was performing a “sleight of hand” that confused different issues and left out important distinctions.

Fr. Petri was joined in his criticisms by fellow theologian Father Gregory Gresko, a Benedictine monk who earned his Sacred Theology Licentiate from the Pontifical Lateran University's John Paul II Institute.

In his comments to CNA, Fr. Gresko objected to Gibson's claim that President Obama had offered religious institutions a way out of subsidizing employees' contraception.

In reality, he said, the president was continuing to demand the same contraception subsidy from employers – while playing the “shell game” of “appearing to be shifting responsibility from the Catholic institutions in question to insurance companies.”

“The argument that the Catholic Church would not be involved in paying for such coverage is illusory,” Fr. Gresko said. “Everyone doing business with insurance companies – employers and employees alike – would be paying for such coverage.”

On Feb. 10, President Obama announced a change to Health and Human Services' controversial rule on “preventive services.” Under the new rule, all insurance companies must offer without a co-pay contraception, sterilization and some abortion-causing drugs, even in plans purchased by religious employers that object to underwriting these services.

Under the new mandate, Gibson claimed, employers' support for contraception would be unintended and “remote,” rather than intentional and “direct” – since “the Catholic employer has no involvement or knowledge of the separate contract for contraceptive coverage between the employee and the insurer.”

The resulting “remote material cooperation,” he said, is “a perfectly legitimate way for a Catholic individual or organization to function in a sinful world.”

Gibson's argument drew from traditional categories of moral theology, which Catholics have often used to think through dilemmas or ambiguous situations.


Both Fr. Petri and Fr. Gresko, however, found Gibson's use of these categories to be flawed and inaccurate.

Fr. Petri acknowledged Gibson's argument that an employer, under the new mandate, “might not have involvement or knowledge of a separate contract … between employee and insurer” to receive contraception without a co-pay, since these agreements would be strictly between the insurer and employee.

But, as the Dominican pointed out, no Catholic employer is currently in that hypothetical future situation.

Rather, Fr. Petri noted, employers are now in the predicament of being forced to agree, knowingly, that such agreements will be made in the future as part of their contracts with insurers.

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By confusing the two situations, Gibson drew attention away from the question actually facing the Church – which is not about whether to make contracts under which contraception could be provided; but rather, about whether to accept being forced to make such contracts in the future.

This confusion, Fr. Petri explained, could cause readers to confuse two significantly different questions: on the one hand, whether the mandate could be followed if imposed; and on the other hand, whether its imposition should be accepted in the first place.

But even the question Gibson focuses on – in his attempt to say Catholic organizations could follow the mandate in good conscience – is murkier than he would have readers believe, according to Fr. Petri.

Under the new mandate, Gibson claims, a Catholic institution's involvement in providing contraception “is 'mediated' because contraceptive coverage is provided at several steps removed from the institution.” Most commercial transactions, Gibson notes, involve some degree of material support for immoral acts.

Fr. Petri responded that Gibson had applied this distinction wrongly, by defining it incorrectly in the first place.

“Where he goes wrong,” the Dominican theologian replied, “is by identifying the so-called 'compromise' as requiring 'mediate' material cooperation, rather than 'immediate' material cooperation.”

“It seems to me that the HHS mandate involves immediate material cooperation – which, according to traditional Catholic moral teaching, is never legitimate. You're not allowed to 'immediately' cooperate with evil.”

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In his article, Gibson defined “immediate material cooperation with evil” as meaning the “action of both the wrongdoer and the person aiding the wrongdoer are the same.”

Fr. Petri, however, took issue with this definition, saying that “immediate material cooperation” is normally defined as a situation in which “my action is necessary for the commission of the evil, and without my action the evil would not be committed.”

“It seems to me that this is immediate material cooperation,” Fr. Petri said of the HHS mandate. “Employers are, in fact, paying these premiums which are directly going to these 'preventive' services.”

Fr. Gresko, in his response to Gibson, stressed the Church's duty to reject the revised contraception mandate just as it did the first version – since both force believers to underwrite practices they oppose.

For the Church “not to fight the current battle at hand,” the Benedictine theologian said, “would be a deliberately active omission of carrying out its responsibility for the good of the Christian faithful” – specifically, its duty to defend believers “from immoral assaults on their religious liberty and freedom of conscience.”

“The Church’s cooperation with the alleged Obama compromise would lead to grave scandal,” he pointed out. “It would in fact be implying support for Obama’s position” – that contraception is a necessary form of health care that employers should be forced to support.


Fr. Gresko stressed the Church's obligation to stand not only for its own freedom, but also for the truth about human sexuality.

“Pregnancy is not a medical disease to be avoided, and consequently contraception, which has the formal intent to avoid a pregnancy at all costs, is not appropriate to be covered by insurance policies,” he stated.

“Encouraging the use of birth control has the real-life effect of encouraging sexual relations without regard for their inherent moral responsibility, such that when a pregnancy still does occur, abortion often becomes more a given next step.”

“The vast majority of abortions occur in the United States in this 'abortive-contraceptive' manner … What providing contraception indeed does is to encourage irresponsible sexual activity with the illusion of such action’s bearing no moral, personal, or social consequences down the road.”

Gibson's USA Today article also attempts to argue that religious institutions will not be paying extra costs to cover employees' contraception, because “studies show that providing coverage for birth control actually saves insurers money … and it is at least revenue neutral. So there are no costs to pass on.”

Fr. Gresko sees this argument as “specious at best” – because of the frequency with which failed contraception results in both pregnancy and abortion, both of which Gibson admits “cost more than contraceptives.”

But Father John D. Corbett, who teaches moral theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., offered CNA a different critique of these supposed cost-savings.

“It seems to me that if this argument, and subsequent policy, were enacted then the Church would be placed in the position of hoping that contraception be actually practiced,” Fr. Corbett observed.

“For if it were not practiced sufficiently, then there would be no savings,” he explained. “If there were no savings then there would be higher premiums through which the Church would be more or less directly paying for contraception.”

“This would put the Church in the position of saying 'A sufficient number of you must practice contraception to ensure that we will not have to pay for your contraception.' This looks a lot like formal cooperation.”