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A View from the Land Down Under

Frank Brennan, SJ, is an Australian and a distinguished human rights activist and scholar who spends a lot of time in the United States. Here is his reflection on the current tussles of the American bishops with the Obama administration.

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Thanks for this. I thought the article was a helpful summary/explanation of what has happened here in recent months---and a useful warning of the potential dangers of the path the USCCB seems to be taking.

Frank Brennan writes of making compromises.But the ring leaders in the USCCB do not want to make compromises, because they are religious zealots and it is contrary to their religious zealotry to make compromises.As Brennan explains, the ring leaders in the USCCB could use the well-established Catholic way of thinking about remote material cooperation with alleged evil.But the ring leaders in the USCCB do not want to use this well-established Catholic way of thinking.Instead, the ring leaders in the USCCB want to stir up a fuss about the Obama administration's proposed contraception-coverage mandate.

Brennan's reporting is very good. But in his reporting, his analysis and his opinions, he passes over what seems to me the most salient fact: if the Obama Administration simply rescinds the contraception mandate, the controversy instantly disappears and the public square instantly becomes less toxic.

@Jim Pauwels (5/7, 9:49 am) If the Obama administration rescinds the contraception mandate, isn't there a likelihood that the public square becomes more toxic as citizens (some of them Catholic) object to the exemption granted in the case of what is, as you, I and Brennan seem to agree, a matter of "remote material cooperation"?

Jim, For whom would you suggest the contraception mandate be rescinded? Rescinded in entirety or extended to quasi-religions non-profits? Just looking for clarification.

In entirety.

Which is Brennan's concern: that the public square is toxic; or that the church is embroiled in a toxic controversy? The church can't be faulted in either case. Would he have the church stay clear of the public square because of dangerous levels of toxicity? To extend the metaphor: the church is out in the square, passing out oxygen masks.

Jim,If the contraceptive mandate were rescinded altogether because of pressure from the Catholic Bishops, I think there might be a reaction similar to when the Komen Foundation declared it was not giving any more money to Planned Parenthood. I think the results would be very toxic indeed. Most people are not Catholic, and most Catholics do not oppose contraception. Most Catholics, in fact, don't oppose the contraceptive mandate. I think you would see great hostility against the bishops from many quarters.

@Jim Pauwels (5/7, 10:27 am) As I understand the article, Brennan's concerns include the following:1 - that allowing a Catholic exemption in a situation of "remote material cooperation" would open the proverbial floodgates to a vast array of exemptions such that "(w)e would contribute only to those universally available citizen services of which we morally approved."2 - that such a state of affairs "would be not only unworkable; it would be wrong. As citizens and taxpayers we are committed to the common good which includes government provision of basic entitlements to all citizens regardless of their religious faith or ability to pay. Living in a pluralistic democratic society, we all need to make compromises."3 - that the US bishops "do not consider the conscience of those in Catholic organisations who think that their employees should have access to preventive health services at affordable rates, provided only that they do not have to be formally involved in the provision of the services."4 - that "(t)here is a risk that the US bishops are escalating a campaign of civil disobedience in the name of conscience when they are not willing to allow members of their own church to act according to a rightly formed and informed conscience on matters relating not to their own faith and morals but to civil entitlements of others in a pluralistic democratic society."5 - that "to invoke conscience against Obama while imposing an iron Vatican will on all Church organisations does raise questions, and not just with the secularists in the public square."

I thought the quote (from Jim's boss) Cardinal George was telling.It indicates that mindset about the rights (presumably) of the hierarchical group and their supporters.That perspective continues to strke me and many pthers as quite slanted and encapsulated.The facile usage of "the public square" is problematic and the perspective Fr. Brennan offers seems more in touch with our plutalistic society.

Luke - I agree that's an apt summary of Brennan's POV as given in his article. None of those points, though, pertains to the supposed necessity of the contraceptive mandate itself. Just rescind the contraception mandate. Do nothing else to the Affordable Care Act. Just rescind the mandate. Such a move (1) would eliminate the need for a Catholic exemption, as there would no longer be a thing from which to be exempt; (2) would have no impact whatsoever on the common good, as contraception would continue to be widely and cheaply available, and existing subsidies, including government subsidies, would continue to exist for those who want it and believe they can't afford it; (3) would permit those in Catholic organizations to continue to provide health care to their employees - even health care with a contraception benefit; (4) would eliminate the need for any campaigns by US bishops; and (5) would eliminate any perceived "iron" pressure from the Vatican (the actual existence of which is questionable) on church organizations to conform to church teaching on contraception.

"If the contraceptive mandate were rescinded altogether because of pressure from the Catholic Bishops, I think there might be a reaction similar to when the Komen Foundation declared it was not giving any more money to Planned Parenthood. I think the results would be very toxic indeed. "It's quite likely, if Mitt Romney wins the presidential election, that we'll find out whether your prediction is right or not.Suppose it does pan out as your predict. Where should we locate the source of the toxicity: with the Catholic Church, which did not seek this dispute and is simply asking that the religious liberty it's had up to this point be preserved; or with the lobbying groups who have invented this "right" to subsidized contraception out of thin air?

Has anyone ever documented that hysterical quote attributed to Cardinal George in the penultimate paragraph? I've seen it go from "I've heard" attribution to "he said" but I haven't seen any documentation.

Another point which is quite salient that Brennan passes over is that something remarkable has happened as a result of the contraception mandate: the US bishops have found the nerve to publicly proclaim the truth about the moral dangers of contraception. Brennan's view seems to be that the Australian bishops haven't found that backbone yet and he seems to rather hope that they don't. I hope that they do.

the US bishops have found the nerve to publicly proclaim the truth about the moral dangers of contraceptionJim,I don't think so at all. I think they are being very careful not to attack contraception per se, but rather to claim religious liberty for those who object to contraception. I think they quite rightly understand that it would be a major blunder to oppose contraception. Santorum bent over backwards to say he had always voted in favor of contraception. I have heard many apologists for the bishop emphasize that their position would not deprive anyone of contraception. One of the arguments we hear in dotCommonweal form supporters of the bishops is that contraception is so cheap, it is simply unnecessary to provide it "free" through insurance.If the Catholic Church wants to proclaim the evils of contraception, the first place to start would be in the Church itself, to the 95% of married (or cohabiting) couples who use it. Indeed, what makes the bishops look weak, rather than courageous, is that they can't even get the vast majority of Catholics to agree with them. While I do acknowledge there is a real issue of religious freedom when it comes to the contraceptive mandate, the problem is not between Catholics and the government. It's between the bishops (and a small minority of Catholics) and the government. This is, of course, why any move by the bishops against the legal availability of contraception itself would provoke such a reaction. They can't even keep their own people from using it, so what in the world gives them the right to try to control access by non-Catholics?

Four million youngsters turn 18 every year. That's sixteen million voters more since the 2008 election.How many of these have the bishops convinced that contraception is intrinsically wrong ? Any bets out there on the 2012 election?

@Jim Pauwels (5/7, 11:08 am) Thanks for your reply. I take it we are agreed that if the contraceptive mandate were reversed, it would be widely (and to a significant degree, correctly) as a victory for the USCCB and their allies.It seems to me that one of the concerns Brennan raises that would apply in this (hypothetical) example is that there would be a new precedent for the creation of exemptions for "remote material cooperation" with evil (as understood by various religious and moral traditions). That then begins to lead us down the road of a libertarianish path of moral and religious exemptions for all sorts of taxes, laws and regulations---far beyond any that now exist, does it not?

Luke: I haven't seen that the bishops agree that the programs proposed by the President constitute remote cooperation with evil. Various of their statements would lead one to reasonably conclude that they don't think it's remote; they think that paying for and contracting for contraception is direct cooperation; and that the proposed accommodation creates new classes of institutions and individuals who would be forced to directly cooperate.

"...the US bishops have found the nerve to publicly proclaim the truth about the moral dangers of contraception."Jim P. --Moral dangers? Don't you mean sinfulness? And, if use of contraceptives is sinful, what are the reasons that would persuade the vast majority of people that use of them is immoral?Sure, the bishops proclaim, proclaim, proclaim. They have not persuaded. They don't even *try* to persuade! When's the last time you heard any of the U. S. Church leaders present any arguments against contraception? And why hasn't the USCCB ever prepared a paper presenting the *arguments* for rejecting contraceptives?Cardinal Dolan and Cardinal George both have some high-falutin academic qualifications. They're smart men. If they themselves have been persuaded that contraception is wrong, why aren't they explaining *why* in the public square?

My problem with the Bishop's position, and Jim P's is that, while claiming moral judgement, they make no attempt to present a logical argument. Logically, I'd contend that contraception is not only not sinful, but is morally desirable -- especially so world wide.

P. S. When I ask "when is the last time you heard any of them PRESENt any arguments" I meant in spoken words, to the press, where people would actually hear what they have to say.

Jim's apptoach it seems to me is that if we'd just be nice and let the Bishops have their way. all would be sweetness and lihjt politicallyI think that's an arm twist from weakness.Nor do I beleieve the conclusion.

Was everything sweetness and light before the bishops woke up a few months ago to what they perceive as an existential threat (whatever that is) to religion in America? I think not. I think that everything went from presenting a problem or an irritation or a conundrum to being an "existential threat" long before the bishops got involved in our national toxicity.Not that they haven't contributed.

"Moral dangers? Dont you mean sinfulness? "Of course using contraception with the intent to contracept, knowing that it is contrary to God's plan, is sinful.Mandating its subsidy also creates a moral hazard. While not sinful in itself, a mandated subsidy can lead one to conclude that, far from being sinful, contraception is morally desirable. The law is a teacher.

"Sure, the bishops proclaim, proclaim, proclaim. They have not persuaded. They dont even *try* to persuade! "Ann, does this fulfill your requirements? http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/natural-famil...

Jim's " I havent seen that the bishops agree that the programs proposed by the President constitute remote cooperation with evil.'Jim? Up or down on the USCCB's Taco Bell exemption because it's proximate cooperation? If you think a franchisees Catholicism gives him the right to a religious exemption....as the soup Nazi would say 'no more tacos for you// come back next year.'

" . . . While not sinful in itself, a mandated subsidy can lead one to conclude that,. . . "But, James, if the subsidy is not sinful in itself, then providing it can't possibly be material cooperation with evil, can it? If I offer you a chocolate ice cream cone (which is not evil in itself), then offering it to you would not be material cooperation with evil, will it?

My goodness. Religious liberty. What in the world is that? Two words when taken seperately have been the inspiration for volumes of remarkably useful as well as hopelessly confusing text and more than a few expansive, brutal confrontations. It seems to me when placed together they are rarerly helpful in as much as they often utterly contradict in each other in the words and deed each can used to justify. As I understand it God permits finite liberty and infinite religion. How exactly are the two words to be usefully connected?

"My problem with the Bishops position, and Jim Ps is that, while claiming moral judgement, they make no attempt to present a logical argument."Let's get this clarified first, because it is extremely important: the traditional and still-current teaching about the sinfulness of contraception is not "the Bishop's position" - it is the church's moral teaching. Folks who disagree with it are not having an academic dispute with a herd of bishops; they are dissenting from the consistent moral teaching of the church.If you believe that the church hasn't made any attempt to present a logical argument against contraception, you may not have searched diligently enough. The document to which I referred Ann Olivier in my previous comment contains a bibliography, if anyone is interested in exploring faithful Catholic teaching about contraception.

"But, James, if the subsidy is not sinful in itself, then providing it cant possibly be material cooperation with evil, can it?If a law permits me to refuse to rent an apartment I manage to an African American, it seems to me the chief sin occurs when I actually tear up a black person's rental application. Such a law may well be teaching me that such racial discrimination is perfectly okay.

"My goodness. Religious liberty. What in the world is that?"MightBe - it's not a term of recent coinage. Any middle schooler preparing for her constitution test ought to be able to explain it.

@Jim Pauwels: You're using the term "moral hazard" in a way that has nothing to do with the generally accepted definition. Yes, any economist will tell you that insurance coverage for contraception creates moral hazard. But insurance coverage for liver transplants does exactly the same thing.It has nothing to do with creating a risk that other people will view an immoral action as moral. It's a term that came from the life insurance industry; if you're insured against a risk (eg, you have insurance against an accident) you are less likely to take care to reduce the risk in other ways. For the contraception argument, this would be "more people will have sex because contraception is available to them without cost" or possibly "more people will use contraception if it's free". It's the basic "if I don't pay the cost, I consume more" argument in a slightly different setting.The wikipedia definition of the term is accurate, btw.

"Jim? Up or down on the USCCBs Taco Bell exemption because its proximate cooperation?"Hey, Ed - I'd be very pleased if the now-legendary Taco Bell proprietor can live out his faith in that way. And as a matter of fact, I haven't been going there nearly as often since they took the cheesy bean and rice burrito off the menu - that was an outstanding lunch option for Fridays during Lent (or any other time of the year).

I also fail to see the moral distinction between hormonal contraception and so-called natural family planning. Either way, it's sex without consequence.

Quite the convincing fellow this Frank Brennan, SJ. Someone else to envy. Or is that admire?

Grace - The argument can very easily be made that, even in its purely economic sense, the contraception mandate creates a moral hazard, but that is not exactly what I was attempting to say. What I was describing is that when the law encourages or mandates immoral activity, it reinforces our sense that in fact the actions are not immoral, because we expect that, in general, the law is just. The law is a teacher of moral conduct. Perhaps there is a better term for that than "moral hazard", but I can't dredge it up at the moment!

Logically, Id contend that contraception is not only not sinful, but is morally desirable especially so world wide.jbruns,While your position is surely widely held, I contend there is nothing logically correct at all about it. First, contraception even if practiced perfectly regularly fails (ie conception results). Some percentage of those 'unwanted' children are aborted. If even one child is aborted as a result of contraception, then it is immoral, because the killing of even one child cannot be offset with the supposed good of preventing millions of births. Human life is not fungible. Second, I'm guessing that implicit in your statement is a belief that the world is overpopulated. Seems rational from a human view but it is entirely unsupported by actual world history. As the population has grown, living conditions for everyone have improved dramatically, even many of the poorest. Virtually everyone today lives in better conditions than even the wealthy of history. Predictions of dire starvation due to overpopulation have regularly failed to prove true. And larger populations have allowed many new and beneficial pursuits beyond the procurement of food and shelter.

Bruce,Please don't assume what I think. My concern is not overpopulation per se. Secondly, contrary to your assertion, I would surmise that at least as many abortions occur as a result of lack of contraception than occur because of failure of contraception. That would, by your logic (and mine) make lack of contraception immoral.

Bruce, While I don't have the time to go into great detail, my position relates to family planning rather than overpopulation. And many studies demonstrate that standard of living is inversely related to fertility rates. Family planning is also linked to improvement in the lives of women.With regard to abortion -- it is my belief that contraception reduces abortions, but if there is data that indicates otherwise, I'd be interested in seeing it.

If the contraceptive mandate were rescinded altogether because of pressure from the Catholic Bishops, then I think those against population growth should pressure for a recission of any payment for the birth of children.Is it all about whose ox is being gored? It's not: it's about the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens, irrespective of their particular religious biases/scruples/prejudices.

@Jim Pauwels (5/7, 2:42 pm) I realize (and appreciate!) that you're bearing the brunt of this conversation, but I'd like to know more about your reasoning on the "Taco Bell" rule. It seems to me that if every business owner were able to "live out his faith" or morality as envisioned by the "Taco Bell rule", then the civil and human rights of workers would be even more in jeopardy. What of the not-at-all-hypothetical case of a business owner who has moral/religious objections to interracial marriages? Or to overpopulation (and so refuses to pay for health insurance for a family's second child, or fires parents who have more than one child)? (I could go on with more examples, but you get the idea. Where is the logical/rational differentiation between those examples and the employer who has moral/religious objections to health insurance that covers the use of contraception?)

I would surmise that at least as many abortions occur as a result of lack of contraception than occur because of failure of contraception. That would, by your logic (and mine) make lack of contraception immoral.jbruns,Thats not how the moral equation works. If failed contraception results in even 1 abortion then all contraception is immoral because the abortion is easily foreseeable. In the case of a lack of contraception, the abortion itself is immoral and the absence of contraception is not part of the equation. If anything, its the prior sexual act which needs to be judged for its morality.

Hi, Luke, I agree that religious liberty is not absolute. Religious liberty needs to be balanced with other rights. In our current system of employer-provided benefits - which the Affordable Care Act perpetuates - for better or worse, the employer exercises broad discretion over which features and benefits of a health plan are offered to employees. Employers can pick and choose in this way for any reason they wish (within the constraints of the law, of course) - because of cost, because of ethical/moral concerns, in order to make their perks more market-competitive - all sort of reasons. Here is an example of constructing health care benefits to address ethical concerns: many, many employers extended health care benefits to live-in partners of unmarried employees, including partners of gay employees, before there were any laws that required this. (I assume there are now laws that would require this in at least some states, and perhaps the ACA does, too - I am not certain). Certainly, they did this because it helped them attract and retain excellent employees. But I don't doubt that in many cases, they also did so because their owners and executives believed it was the right thing to do.I've worked in the business world for a long time. I once attended a lunch meeting in which employees (young women, as it happened) asked a business owner to please include contraceptive coverage in the health care plan. Whether he ever did so, I don't know. But that anecdote illustrates to me that contraceptive coverage can be an important perk in attracting and retaining employees. I don't know how common contraceptive subsidies are in employer-provided plans, but I'd guess that it's pretty common already, for the reasons I've given.If Catholic hospitals and universities don't offer contraceptive coverage, and the nearby secular hospitals and universities do, then those Catholic institutions are at a competitive disadvantage in the labor market. That's okay. Those Catholic institutions are mission-driven, and those who believe in the mission will be willing to forgo that benefit in order to advance the mission. If a contraceptive subsidy is so important to an employer that he is willing to jump ship to an employer that offers it - so be it.The same competitive disadvantage accrues to the Taco Bell franchisee who attempts to live out his faith in that way - just as a competitive disadvantage accrues to the business owner who tries to pay all of his employees a living wage. Again, that's okay. Being a Christian entails sacrifice and burdens.

I wrote, "If a contraceptive subsidy is so important to an employer that he is willing to jump ship to an employer that offers it so be it."I should have written, "... is so important to an *employee* ..."

Bruce: You state, "If failed contraception results in even 1 abortion then all contraception is immoral because the abortion is easily foreseeable. In the case of a lack of contraception, the abortion itself is immoral and the absence of contraception is not part of the equation."I'm sorry, but that makes no sense at all.

Im sorry, but that makes no sense at all.jbruns,I wish I could explain it clearly. The basic moral idea is that you cant kill me to save your life. In the case of morality -1+1 does not equal zero because the person harmed remains harmed no matter that someone else received a good. So as I stated about contraception, if even one child is conceived as a result of failed contraception and subsequently aborted, the entire contraception edifice fails. It fails because no matter how much good may result to others, the aborted human is still harmed and that harm remains. I'm sorry if I'm not very clear in the explanation, but it results because human life is not fungible eg, my life cannot be exchanged for yours with zero effect. So what I was trying to say earlier is the one chance that contraception might be moral is if every 'unwanted' child conceived after a failed contraception was born. If even one is aborted by anyone, then contraception is immoral and its because the morality is not determining by summing the good and bad across the population because the bad occurs to different humans than the good. So even if studies purport to prove that contraception results in less abortion that is not sufficient to make contraception moral. As an aside, I dont know how you could design a study which could prove that because I'm not sure how you account for people who would not have sex (and the resulting children specifically) in the absence of contraception, but do because it is available and offers 'protection'.Also, I'm sorry for making the earlier assumption. That said, I do not think the studies you cite will hold up when considering intergenerational problems. I think about it this way: a few parents can support large numbers of children but the converse is not true: a few children (think middle age adults) cannot support large number of aged parents (think elderly adults). This observation about Greece demonstrates the problem:Currently, 20% of the population is of retirement age and there are 1.7 workers per pensioner. If the trend continues unaltered, by 2050 as much as 40% of the entire population will be eligible for retirement, meaning that every employed Greek will be responsible for taking care of himself, his family and as many as two retired citizens.I'm have a business/math background so another way to think of the issue is: Do you believe each human on avarage is NPV positive or NPV negative? In other words, on average does each human contribute to society, or simply take from it. If you believe the former, then more population is good and the latter, more population is bad. Human history so far has been that more population is better. As for family planning, the church teaches that natural family planning is moral so its still possible. Given the above however, I find it hard to believe restricted fertility actually improves human life in general or women's lives specifically.

@Bruce (5/7, 11:58 pm) I'll leave the moral arguments to my philosophical and theological betters, but I do want to respond to some of your other assertions and statements.First, I don't know what jbruns had in mind, but there are large-scale studies that demonstrate that nations in which contraceptives are legal and widely available/used often have abortion rates far lower than nations in which contraceptives are illegal or not widely available/used. (What one makes of that evidence is, of course, a matter of interpretation.)Your assertion that "a few parents can support large numbers of children but the converse is not true" does not jibe with numerous examples in human history. History is replete with examples of parents having large numbers of children and not being able to support them. Greece is an economic basket base for many reasons. I think economists would agree that the number of retirees a society can support depends not only on the ratio of workers to retirees, but also on the economic productivity of workers. Societies with higher productivity can, in theory anyway, support more retirees per worker.Your assertion that "human history so far has been that more population is better" is, at best, an oversimplification. It is one of the ironies of economic history that Malthus was right...except for the generation in which he was writing and the ones that have followed. For most of human history, the economic reality was that beyond a low-by-our-standards level, more population meant more mouths to feed than could be fed. The result would be some kind of disruption---war, famine, etc.---that reduced populations to a level that the local economy could support.Finally, while there's an important debate to be had about what "actually improves human life in general or women's lives specifically", there's a wealth of data from around the world in recent generations that demonstrates about as strong a link as one can forge in the social sciences that, overall, lower birth rates are in fact linked to improved life (as measured by, say, length of life and economic well-being) in general and women's lives specifically.(Again, nothing of what I say here has any direct bearing on the moral, philosophical and religious debates about contraception and related issues.)

lower birth rates are in fact linked to improved life LukeLower birth rates would lead to longer lives almost by definition simply because pregnancy and childbirth are high-risk health events for women and children. In other words, a woman having 2 children experiences less risk simply because she had less children than an identical woman in the same society, same living standard, health care, etc who had 8 children.As for Malthus, I think if his prediction has not been right yet, then its wrong. Maybe at some point in the future it will appear correct but that seems more likely explainable from natural variability than an inherent insight he had. Personally, I like Malthus's thoughts and ideas and they seem inherently logical and reasonable to me. Its just that they are not actually supported by real human experience.

People will believe what they want to believe, hence the bumper sticker "Don't Believe Everything You Think." But an interesting article from the economist is good reading:http://www.economist.com/node/14743589

@Bruce (5/8, 9:10 am) Thanks for the reply. I'm glad we've found some level of agreement that lower birth rates (and, by implication, the use of some form of contraception) are linked to longer (and healthier) lives.As for Malthus, my point was not that he has not been right yet. My point was that he *was* right for the first 58 centuries or so of human history. It's only in the past 2 centuries or so that he's been wrong. (Unfortunately for Malthus, that's the period in which he wrote.)Economist Brad DeLong makes this point using the linked graph. http://delong.typepad.com/delongslides/2008/02/how-did-we-esca.htmlIt shows that up until the mid/late 17th century, as population rose, real wages fell in England. The reverse is generally true as well; as population fell, real wages rose.Then, for the next century or so real wages rise and plateau at about the level they had been when England's population was roughly 3 million. This happens despite the population rising from 6 million to 10 million, and it coincides with the end of the Civil War and the beginning of large-scale colonization by the English across the North Atlantic (starting with Ireland).Finally, beginning in the late 18th century, English real wages climb steadily to unprecedented levels at the same time the population doubles and rises to equally unprecedented levels.So, DeLong concludes, something happened around that time that changed the dynamics of population growth and changed the dynamics of economic innovation (and growth).Crudely speaking, Malthus was right---for pre-19th century humanity.

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