Obama Defends Conscience
Yesterday, the Obama administration upheld the original provision for religious exemption in the Affordable Care Act by not extending it to religiously-affiliated organizations that employ non-adherents. This is, of course, a victory for all those who care about the religious liberty of individuals and the freedom of individual conscience, which by definition is meant to be protected from the unwelcome coercion by institutions to do things (or not do things) that are not relevant to the performance of one’s explicit duties to them, including one’s employer. The Obama administration did offer one gratuitous concession to those religious institutions, like the USCCB, that seem to be muddled on what exactly conscience is by giving religiously-affiliated employers extra time to comply with the mandate.
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan responded to the announcement saying, “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.” In fact, the Archbishop could take the year to reflect on what the concept of “conscience” actually means. If he truly believes that the provision of contraception through insurance coverage involves a morally significant participation in evil, then it seems that he, as an individual, has options. He could resign. He could get out of the business of employing non-adherents. He could get out of the business of providing health insurance. He could get out of the business of lobbying for government subsidies. Something tells me, though, that one’s conscience has its limits.
Closer to home, University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins appealed to the desire of religious organizations to participate in a “vibrant democracy” and called for “a national dialogue among religious groups, government and the American people to reaffirm our country’s historic respect for freedom of conscience and defense of religious liberty.” It seems to me that the dialogue has been had, and the best argument prevailed. Of course, it’s ironic that Jenkins is calling for a national dialogue when he has not even hosted a campus dialogue and represents a Church that is decidedly non-democratic in its constitution. Like Dolan, Jenkins too has options. Will he stop providing health insurance to his employees, as he suggested this past fall? Or, will he get out of the business of employing and instructing non-adherents by having them sign a credo, as is done at some other religiously-affiliated universities and colleges? Will Notre Dame stop applying for government grants? Again, something tells me that one’s conscience has its limits.
Perhaps the most disheartening part of this whole affair is the fact that there seems to be very little faith afforded to the consciences of individual religious believers on the part of their religious leaders. If the USCCB really cared about religious liberty and freedom of conscience, it would, I think, trust that those who fill the church pews on Sunday just might have the ability to come to their own moral conclusions in consultation with the spiritual guidance they have come to receive. As it stands, the bishops and other religious leaders seem intent on protecting their prerogative to coerce rather than counsel, and this is a slap in the faces of the faithful, who have already endured and forgiven so much loss of moral credibility among their clergy. It is also a tacit admission that the clergy themselves are perhaps not so confident in their own charism to amplify the small, quiet voice of God in the hearts of those who hear them. In this case, as in all cases where the right to coerce is claimed over the right of individual conscience, fear, insecurity, and, indeed, unbelief seem to be drowning out the voice of faith itself.