Mark Shea made an interesting post at National Catholic Register on war. I really enjoy the rhetoric he consistently employs against war; rhetoric that we don’t seem to hear enough of in American Catholic circles. My opinion is that too many of us let the foreign policy and ethos of the republican party influence our feelings about war and our application of traditional “just war” doctrine. For this reason, I love what Shea has to say here:
The point is this: just war doctrine has been formulated by the Church, not to give us a trigger mechanism so that we can roll up our sleeves and commence slaughter with a song in our hearts, but in order to make it as hard as possible to go to war—because war kills innocent people. The point of just war doctrine, in other words, is to set up a series of roadblocks to slow down and restrain the human appetite for mayhem, vengeance, murder and destruction which sinfully yearns for an excuse to be unleashed. Just war doctrine is formulated in such a way that you have to fulfill all the requirements of just war teaching, not just one or two, in order to fight a just war. The first requirement is that all just war must be an act of defense against an actual aggressor, not a preventative act of aggression against somebody you fear might be an aggressor one of these days. Similarly, one of the criteria which must be fulfilled is that war must be a last, not a first, resort. Therefore, pre-emptive war is necessarily unjust war—because war is not something you “get” to do. War is something you tragically are forced to do as a last resort: like amputating your own leg. Pre-emptive war, being neither a response to an actual act of aggression nor a last resort is, itself, an act of aggression. It should be as morally desirable to Catholics as the thought of amputating one’s own healthy leg because you fear that in five years you might step on a nail and get gangrene. Not too eager to do that? Neither should any Catholic be eager to cut corners on just war doctrine—because war mean innocents will die, women will be made widows and children will be made orphans. That is why Joaquin Navarro-Valls, speaking on behalf of Pope John Paul II, said, “He who decides that all pacific means provided by the international law are exhausted, assumes a grave responsibility in front of God, in front of his own conscience and in front of history!”
Though I think he may go too far in condemning any pre-emptive war whatsoever (because an immanent, certain attack might, when all other means have been exhausted, justify a pre-emptive, defensive strike), he is, on the whole, right on the money.
All this talk about the evils of forcing Catholic institutions to provide insurance plans to its employees that cover contraception, contrary to freedom of conscience and religion, is important. However, it leaves unsaid why the Church would condemn contraception in the first place. As it turns out, that question is not unrelated, as there would be less demand for such coverage if priests and bishops taught more on these matters to the faithful. For my part, I can’t say that I have ever heard a homily at Sunday Mass that explained the Church teaching on contraception; but I am certain that I’ve heard the secular arguments for it repeated at least a couple hundred times, in the most common, day-to-day circumstances. I only learned the ‘why’ of this moral doctrine adequately from Catholic higher education, and by all accounts in this I am lucky – as many Catholic educational institutions drop the ball here as well.
No wonder Catholics largely ignore this moral teaching! No wonder the Church loses ground and has to battle intrusive edicts which injure her ability to carry out the mission given to her by the Lord!
It’s high time, then, for Catholics – the clergy and the lay faithful – to address the issue of contraception. Let’s be courageous and speak up about it! What follows is my humble contribution.
There is a recent article on the website of, of all places, “Business Insider”, that gives some needed perspective on the issue of contraception and the Church. Despite the title of the article, Time To Admit It: The Church Has Always Been Right On Birth Control, the authors actually spend their time pursuing the more modest goal of showing that the Church, at the very least, deserves the benefit of the doubt here:
Here’s the thing, though: the Catholic Church is the world’s biggest and oldest organization. It has buried all of the greatest empires known to man, from the Romans to the Soviets. It has establishments literally all over the world, touching every area of human endeavor. It’s given us some of the world’s greatest thinkers, from Saint Augustine on down to René Girard. When it does things, it usually has a good reason. Everyone has a right to disagree, but it’s not that they’re a bunch of crazy old white dudes who are stuck in the Middle Ages.
So on the one hand, there is the prevailing wisdom that laughs at the Church’s teaching, and it makes initial sense: What in the world could be wrong with taking responsible control of one’s reproductive capacity? What could be wrong about judging when it is a good idea to have a child and when it is not?
On the other hand (the authors of this article suggest), regardless of what sins have also been committed in her name, the Church’s antiquity, innumerable good works, and venerable intellectual tradition should elicit the respect of any reasonable person not hindered by prejudice. One ought to at least presume that the Church’s teaching on contraception has some thought put into it, that it is defensible – that there are intelligent, thoughtful, normal people convinced of it, and that there is at least some plausibility to their reasons. Is that too much to ask? Is it too much to ask that the Catholic Church get a fair hearing?
If you are someone who is puzzled by this teaching, or who opposes it, or who simply doesn’t give it a second thought, and yet who want to give it a fair hearing, consider this: ‘birth control’, per se, is not, and was never, the problem. In other words, there is nothing wrong, in the view of the Church, with a married couple responsibly spacing births or putting them off for a time if there is a serious (read: not fundamentally selfish) reason for doing it. They might even put off having children indefinitely, if the serious reason endures indefinitely.
The problem with contraception, however, which includes many (but not all) means of responsibly spacing births, however, is of a different nature. In the attempt to make this problem adequately clear, I’ve formulated a non-religious explanation that could fit into the proverbial nutshell. I did not think up any of the basic elements of the explanation myself, but simply formulated them in words that I think sufficiently sum up the matter. Here it is:
The institution of marriage and family is a foundational good, essential to the flourishing of human individuals and society. Because fertility and pregnancy are tied so intimately to it, they are valued together with this great good. For this reason, they deserve to be accorded profound respect and honor. At no time, under no circumstances, and for no ulterior motive, however noble, should fertility or pregnancy be dealt with as if they were diseases to be treated or prevented with pills, surgery, or any other implement thought up by human ingenuity. They are that important.
Now, I hope that everyone thinks that marriage and family is one of the most beautiful gifts that life has to offer, and that fertility and pregnancy should be respected and honored along with them. I hope that everyone thinks that fertility and pregnancy are very important. But I suppose that some may not think that they are so important, that to act against them with contraceptive pills or devices (or surgery?) would be absolutely morally excluded.
I can understand this position, to a degree. I think it is more or less the working theory that most contracepting Catholics (a solid majority of the Catholic population) function under. But think about what it implies. We know that pregnancy is a normal, healthy bodily condition for women, and fertility, for men and women. Are there any other healthy bodily conditions that we consider of so little importance that we think we can choose, willy nilly, to treat them as if they were diseases, as long as it is done for some good ulterior motive?*We ought to take pills, use medical apparatuses, and get surgeries because we are sick, not because we are healthy. To act in a way that treats fertility and pregnancy as if they were diseases, even if done once and for a good reason, is always an action that demeans them, that fails to value them as they ought to be valued.
Lastly, I want to propose that failing to value fertility and pregnancy as high as we ought to is a failing that, because of its many and grave negative consequences, we are already being held accountable for. In fact, these consequences were predicted decades ago. I will make another post on these consequences in the near future.
* Note: Harming one aspect of bodily health in order to reestablish the overall integrity of health, like with amputations, does not involve a choice that treats ‘healthy’ as if it were ‘unheathy.’ Contraceptive pills/devices/surgeries, as well as mutilation, excessive drinking, etc. do involve such a choice.
If you haven’t heard about the Obama Administration’s recent, controversial Department of Health and Human Services mandate that employer covered insurance plans fully cover contraception (including abortifacients), and sterilization, then you must have had your head in the figurative sand. The religious liberty of Catholic institutions and other groups that oppose these products and services are threatened by it, and the implications for religious freedom in the future, if this mandate holds, are frankly frightening. It is no wonder that many forms of resistance to this mandate have cropped up almost overnight, including a coordinated effort by the United States Catholic Bishops. It is a direct attack against the “free exercise” clause of the first amendment of the Constitution.
What I want to accomplish by this post is to inject a bit of clarity into the argument that is going on all over the blogosphere and on facebook pages. Many who support the mandate, as well as some who oppose it, don’t seem to have an adequate grasp of what good moral reasoning looks like. Many defenders are obscuring the matter by simply re-describing what it is that is going on here, and sometimes the ‘opposers’ respond in such a way that it could look like they are offering merely their own ‘re-description’ in response. We need to be clear in our descriptions. What seems to be at the heart of the matter is recognizing what is chosen in particular actions and who is responsible for them.
Example #1: Many are claiming that for an institution to provide contraception coverage to its employees is the same thing, morally speaking, to that institution providing a salary that could be used or not used to purchase contraception. But on the contrary, good moral reasoning recognizes the difference between paying a salary and paying a premium on specified products and services. An employer pays a salary to an employee and is responsible for that salary; what the employee does with it is ultimately a matter of his own choice and responsibility. An employer provides an employee with a health insurance policy; the products and services included in that policy are the employers responsibility, and the use of them are the responsibility of the employee.
Example #2: Many are claiming that for the Church to refuse to provide contraception coverage to its employees is to force its religious beliefs on them. This one is an especially bizarre distortion of reality. Again, good moral reasoning recognizes the difference between choosing to force someone to comply with religious practices against their will, and choosing not to pay for another person to obtain specified products and services which one opposes because of ones religious beliefs. To paint it differently is to arbitrarily re-describe what is actually going on. Here’s an illustrative example I used in the combox of another blog:
Let’s say, for example, that my daughter asked me to pay for any contraception she might want to buy. Would it be immoral for me to refuse to do so? Of course not! I should not be forced to pay for something that I morally oppose. She would be wrong to expect me to do so, and if she respected my conscience she would not press the matter. On the other hand, she would be free to obtain it by other means, and, if she was no longer a child, I would be wrong to try to stop her (aside from trying to persuade her in a respectful manner).
See my point?
We have to stop letting ourselves put ‘spin’ on our moral evaluations of the actions of those we disagree with. We need to think clearly and without partiality. We have to stop conflating what is actually done and chosen with the effects or outcome. We have to fight the impulse to ‘re-describe’ what it is that others actually do, in order to prop up our own viewpoints or political parties. If we don’t intentionally commit ourselves to clear-thinking and fairness in argument, we will continue to find ourselves obscuring the truth rather than shedding light on it. Without these virtues, anything is for grabs and politics becomes no longer a matter of persuasion but of manipulation of opinion through media selectivity and repetition.
The Church isn’t asking for the right to fire an employee for missing Mass on Sunday or for coveting his neighbor’s wife. It just doesn’t want its institutions to be legally required to pay for acts that it considers immoral … This isn’t the equivalent of a hypothetical Muslim hospital demanding, say, that all its employees permanently abstain from pork and alcohol and premarital sex. It’s the equivalent of a hypothetical Muslim hospital declining to stock Playboy in its gift shop, or serve pork and alcohol in its cafeteria.