Contraception, subsidiarity, and the Catholic bishops

By now you may have heard that the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic, has issued a mandate that will require Catholic hospitals, universities, and charities to pay for contraceptives, including abortifacients, for their employees -- despite the fact that the Catholic Church teaches that contraception and abortion are intrinsically gravely immoral.  The United States Council of Catholic Bishops has vigorously denounced this act of tyranny, and is working to reverse it.  That is good, and we Catholics should support their efforts.  But it would have been better if the bishops had been equally vigorously upholding Catholic teaching on contraception and subsidiarity over the last several decades, and disciplining Catholics in public life who obstinately promote policies that the Church regards as inherently gravely evil.  Had they done so, it is unlikely that this outrage ever would have been perpetrated in the first place.

For decades now, the majority of Catholics have been ignoring the Church’s teaching that the use of contraceptives is mortally sinful.  Even priests who accept that teaching rarely speak about it from the pulpit.  Theologians and professors in Catholic colleges and universities who reject it are for the most part allowed to teach and write against it unmolested.  As a result, it is widely assumed that a Catholic may in good conscience dissent from the Church’s teaching.  It is also no doubt widely thought that many churchmen are embarrassed by this teaching, and expect it someday to change.  The bishops have made no serious effort to counteract these perceptions.  Though they often issue bold statements regarding prudential matters about which they have no special competence -- economic policy, immigration policy, health care policy -- and have been extremely vigorous in promoting a strict abolitionist position on capital punishment that Catholic teaching does not actually require, they do not seem to think it urgent to correct the vast number of Catholics who flout a basic moral doctrine, the teaching and enforcement of which is the bishops’ special responsibility.  How surprised should they be, then, when those hostile to the Church’s teaching judge that Catholics will “roll over” for policies like the one now issued by HHS?  If Catholics and their leaders don’t seem to take the Church’s teaching on contraception very seriously, why should the Obama administration?  (One USCCB official has asked why the administration is allowing the Amish and Christian Scientists to opt out of its health plan, but does not show equal respect to Catholics.  Perhaps the answer is that the government has no doubt that the Amish and the Christian Scientists really believe and practice what they preach.)

The bishops have also put little emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity, according to which the needs of individuals, families, and local communities ought as a matter of justice to be met as far as possible by those individuals, families, and communities themselves rather than by centralized governmental institutions.  This is a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching, and its point is in part precisely to shield smaller and more local institutions from arbitrary and tyrannical power of the sort the federal government is now exercising vis-à-vis Catholic institutions.  Yet most Catholics have probably never heard of the principle; worse, and as I complained in a post on the 2010 health care debate, though the Obama administration’s health care plan is seriously objectionable from the point of view of subsidiarity, the bishops took no account of the principle when commenting on the plan.  Indeed, they gave the impression that, apart from some aspects of the plan concerning abortion and coverage of illegal immigrants, it was not only unobjectionable but something to “applaud.”  How surprised should they be when government officials well known for their hostility to Catholic teaching use the power the bishops have urged them to take in ways the bishops do not like?

It goes without saying that the bishops have also done very little to discipline those Catholic politicians who publicly and obstinately promote policies which the Church teaches are gravely immoral.  Only a few individual bishops have dared to state publicly that those Catholic politicians who promote abortion or “same-sex marriage” ought not to receive Holy Communion.  But no such politician seems to have taken these admonitions seriously, and even the most conservative bishops seem to regard the harsher penalty of excommunication as unthinkable.  How surprised should they be now that one of these Catholic politicians -- Kathleen Sebelius -- has moved on from promoting abortion "rights" to actively persecuting her fellow Catholics, while other Catholics in the administration (such as Vice President Joe Biden) stand by without protest?

Suppose that the bishops had for decades consistently thundered against contraception and disciplined all priests and Catholic writers and teachers who publicly dissented from the Church’s teaching.  There would be many more Catholics faithful to the Church’s teaching than there are now, both because more Catholics would realize how grave a sin contraception is, and because they would be having far more children than they do now.  Even those Catholics who still disobeyed the teaching would be more likely to have a guilty conscience about doing so, and would be far less likely to dissent from it publicly.  And non-Catholics would have no doubt whatsoever that the bishops, and Catholics more generally, would “go to the mat” to protect Catholic institutions from policies like the one now announced by HHS.

Suppose also that the bishops had consistently and vigorously brought the principle of subsidiarity to bear on matters of public policy about which they decided to comment.  Both they and Catholic politicians like Bart Stupak would have been much more cautious about advocating policies that might give to government powers it ought not to have and which might threaten the liberty of Catholics to practice their religion.  And suppose that Catholic politicians who promoted grave evils like abortion even after being warned against doing so were swiftly punished with excommunication.  Obviously there would be fewer Catholic politicians who would dare to promote such evils, and fewer Catholic voters who would dare help to elect such people in the first place.  

And had the bishops been doing these things, is it likely that the Obama administration would be taking the course it has now decided upon?  Or is it more likely that the Catholic Church would be treated with the deference that the Amish and Christian Scientists are apparently getting?  To ask the question is to answer it.  When we fail to render unto God what is due to Him -- the promotion and enforcement of His Church’s basic moral teachings -- we should not be surprised when non-believers do not take those teachings seriously.  And when we render unto Caesar power to which he has no right, we should not be surprised when he abuses it.
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