Contraceptives and the Freedom of Conscience: Framing the Catholic Debate in Other Terms

English: Barack Obama signing the Patient Prot...
One day, this scene might be on money.

I’ve been reading up on the fall-out over the Obama Administration’s decision not to exempt large Catholic employers (hospitals, colleges, social service agencies) from provisions in the new health care laws requiring that enterprises of their scale provide insurance that covers contraceptives.

You don’t have to agree with Humanae Vitae to understand why the issue is important to people who believe, as a matter of religious conviction, that human life begins at fertilization.  You don’t have to be a paranoid pro-lifer to connect the dots between a mandate about legal medicine (contraceptives) and a future mandate about legal practices (abortion).  You don’t have to hate the President to seriously wonder when the other shoe will drop and your marquee universities and charities will be forced to fund abortions. Even if you have total antipathy for the Catholic church’s teachings or the wider pro-life movement, you can understand, if not empathize, with the anxieties and fears engulfing Catholic leaders and other pro-life people.  If you are pro-life, you may or may not get involved in the debate about contraceptives, but you understand and worry about the larger implications of these mandates.

Now to lay some cards out on the table.   I am pro-life, and I believe there are solid progressive arguments yet to be made for the legal protection of gestating human life.  I also happen to believe that being pro-life requires a strong social witness for economic justice, racial equality, prerogatives of peace and a rejection of the death penalty.  I’m not Catholic, but the seamless garment makes a lot of sense to me.  Far too often, it has been ripped to shreds by leaders claiming a pro-life mantle on the issue of abortion only.

None of this means that I can muster up a cogent argument against the contraceptive mandate under current law.  That’s not because I don’t cherish our religious freedom.  It’s because I do, and because I recognize that the tendency we (religious and irreligious folk alike) have toward calling some things “secular” and “sacred”  robs civil society of real pluralism and limits the ways we let ourselves come and reason together.

Freedom of religion is fundamentally about freedom of conscience and always has been.  In our context now, it seems natural that a Catholic might appeal to freedom of religion when protesting a federal mandate about contraceptives or abortions.  But what if I disagree with the ethics of abortion on purely humanist grounds? Or as a libertarian?  In the popular practice of most juris prudence, I’m not protected the same way as a person claiming religious exemption.  The Catholic, the humanist, and the libertarian are all appealing to freedom of conscience, but only the Catholic (or other “religious” protester) is seen as doing so from a place of perceived transcendent duty, obligation, and, yes, conscience.

Why should that be so?

Do we actually do a disservice to religious freedom when we maintain that its more precious than  freedom of conscience?  In the post-Enligthenment milieu of colonial America, the anti-establishment clause sought to the respect the consciences of Americans of all creeds and no creeds.  But aren’t our secular values creeds unto themselves? And don’t we all, by virtue of paying taxes, fund things we otherwise oppose?  Abortion and contraceptives are one example, but we all know people who believe that the mere existence of social safety nets is to blame for our rotten economy and blighted inner cities.  If allowed, wouldn’t these acolytes of laissez-faire opt out of paying a certain percentage of their taxes?   Of course they would.  (By default, many do.)

In some instances we’ve developed models like conscientious objection.  But when Carl Wilson stayed home from Vietnam, his didn’t get to say “give my taxes to anything but war.”   If he’d been Amish, the question would be settled.  But even Quakers, who generally oppose all war on religious grounds, fund those wars with their taxes, at least for now.  Here libertarian arguments for as few taxes and as few programs as possible start to sound appealing.  But if we extend the freedom of conscious logic from taxes to practice, we’d have to allow institutional racism if we’re aiming to be consistent.  For a racist, freedom of conscience means that the government can’t prosecute racist employers for racist hiring practices.  Abortion and war are life and death issues, to be sure, but so is prejudice.

So maybe consistency isn’t the answer.  Maybe we’re looking for rational ways to serve two jealous masters:  the free consciences of our people and the moral ends (again, as perceived by someone) of government.  Note that even in the framing of the Bill of Rights, freedom of conscience is not given to those who would seek to establish a state religion or deny public assembly or prosecute peaceful protests and dissent.  We’ve made value judgements from the beginning, and we always will.

I am pro-life, but that’s not the reason I think the White House will have to compromise on the value judgement they’ve made here.  I think the federal mandate undermines the administration’s case precisely because it’s federal and precising because it’s binding without exception .  Unlike similar laws in many states, there’s no way of opting out of the federal mandate that healthcare be provided by these large employers, so Catholic universities and hospitals 1) must provide healthcare and 2) cannot limit what healthcare their funds cover based on religious objection.  Going into the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), “mandate” was the bogey-word, and now we’re seeing why.  But there’s no real precedent for conscientious objection to this kind of law, partly because this kind of law hadn’t ever been passed at the federal level, and partly because we simply don’t allow most folks to opt out of these things over matters of conscience.  But, amazingly, we make exceptions for religion, and because of that, religion suffers.

As much as I would love to push the line, in some ways, that religious freedom really is fundamentally different that freedom of conscience, I know that doing so actually  makes all thoughtful freedom weaker in the end because it denies the truth that even atheists or scientific materialists imbue their Weltanschauung of choice with a transcendence they don’t talk about at cocktail parties.  The framers of the Constitution knew this, even as they enshrined their own sense of universal Good into our founding.  And without that liberal DNA, what?  Monarchy?  Tyranny?  Our system is far from perfect and often far from fair.  But we are challenged with the task of working these things out.

I’m inclined to say we’re left having to admit that freedom of conscience isn’t absolute, even in America, and never, ever has been. We know this in our gut, which is why people say “this is a freedom of religion issue” as if freedom of religion is somehow different from freedom of conscience. It’s why the Amish live in their separate peace, while other people of faith find ourselves in the sublime tension of Christ’s call to be in the world but just not of it.  We are to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and trust God to work things out.  But Jesus also calls us salt and light, and our public witness for the poor, the marginalized, the least powerful of these is a public duty of Christian faith.  We rightly call companies with unjust working conditions and other harmful practices to task, and we rightly manifest a prophetic witness to the government.  But in the end, if the tax is passed, we pay it.  If the law is passed, we follow.  But as much as we love law and order, Americans were born to throw off these kind of yokes.  And so we work things out, and it takes time, and we screw up.  And we thank God for the grace that covers our poor judgement, our ignorance and arrogance, our well-intentioned mistakes and ill-gained, ill-spent treasure.

BOMB Magazine Gets Me All Theological

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...
I freaking love this guy.

Harnessing both my theological and literary training, I present the curious parallel between BOMB Magazine’s “tips for writers” and Romans chapter 7.

Please do not send genre fiction. Please read the magazine before you even think of submitting work. Sample copies are available for purchase.

Setting aside the fact that samples aren’t usually something one pays for, BOMB has, by the sly legalism of these suggestions, already made me an offender.  Had I not thought of submitting to BOMB, I never would have read the commandment to read BOMB before thinking of submitting.  Sisters and brothers, this is a quandary.

I’m inevitably reminded of St. Paul’s lament in the seventh chapter of his epistle to the Roman church:

7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”[b]8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 9 Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. 12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.


Then, one of my favorite Pauline images:

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

It’s quite the predicament we’re in.  Even if the language of slavery and sin doesn’t resonate with you, I’m reminded at a very basic level how quickly our good intentions can turn to crap, or how, from one moment to the next, our tempers flare and we lose the plot with peers, co-workers, and loved ones. We do things we don’t mean to do.  Say things we don’t mean to say.  Hurt people we don’t mean to hurt.  Having to balance the tradition of the law and the freedom he felt in Christ, Paul does some exhausting footwork getting us to the point that shame for our shortcomings is only such because the law has named them.  The law has, in a sense, enshrined our every failing.

Paul loses me when he says next that it’s not him sinning in these moments, but sin in him.  I mean, I get it, I guess: if sin is the manifestation of the all the marks we miss, and we wouldn’t think of it as sin without knowing the marks the law sets, and if knowing what the standards are entices us to miss them, then, yes, okay, who can really blame us?  Except for when we choose to miss the mark, when we fail, on purpose, to help the poor, speak justice to the powerful, or extend care to those who need it.  I think what Paul’s groping for is some explanation of why our good intentions don’t keep us from both kinds of failings: the harsh treatment of a friend in a moment of stress or the convenient overlooking of a neighbor’s plight.  Why do we do the things we do?  Why aren’t we perfect?  Why does Paul suffer from this thorn?  Why intrusive thoughts, anxieties, distractions?

I don’t know.  What I can say is that theologies of guilt, of fear, of shame, can lead to dangerous places.  I’m back on track with Paul when he talks about God’s power being made perfect in our weakness.  When he points us to the cross and encourages us to see the world through the lens of a broken, beaten God.  A God who mourns when we mourn, who’s mourning even now, with you, with me.

I don’t know if the law makes us sinners, but it can make us feel like shit.  It made a dead man out of Jesus…it made a mourner out of God.  And that makes God our ally, help, and hope.

And so we hope.

Find Your Soul Mate, Homer: The Spirituality of Facebook Insight Metrics

I am, however, one of those thirtysomethings with a robust red beard.

This may surprise you, but I’m not one of those 30-somethings that can go deep and wide on Simpsons quotes or trivia past the second season.   The same is probably true for Seinfeld.  That said, I’ve never forgotten some of the nuances of the episode where Johnny Cash plays a coyote in Homer’s vision quest.  You likely have an idea, even if it’s just from other popular media, about what a vision quest is.

I didn’t know until yesterday that it’s also the name of the language (or something…I’m a liberal arts/MFA grad, let us ne’er forget) that Facebook uses to run their insight tools for Pages:

Isn’t that sort of like naming a program “Baptism” or “Bar Mitzvah?”  It strikes me as rather insensitive, inappropriate, and rude. Considering that vision quests are meant to impart, well, a vision, the use of the program or protocol or whatever it is within the Insights application (or whatever it is) feels kind of crass, don’t you think?

If you’ve been reading The Daily Cocca for a while you probably know that I’ve  become increasingly interested in spiritual formation over the last year or so.   I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on First Nations rites of passage or spirituality, but I will say that the general idea of listening for or hoping for or even preparing for the building or outright giving of spiritual insight is something the Christian tradition and other traditions affirm.  With that in mind, the juxtaposition of insight and vision within the Facebook Pages platform got me wondering about the degree to which we all either:

a) think of insight as an ability to know the good in a given situation (political, economic, whatever) and then how to enact it (basically, this is Aristotelian prudence) rather than the building up or taking in of some other kind of knowing (spiritual/existential).

b) think that insight, even apart from its meaning in metrics, is something quantifiable.

c) think something must be quantifiable to have value.

In some ways, of course, most faith traditions suggest a kind of metric for spiritual growth: Christians, for example, speak of the non-quantifiable process whereby Christ is built in us, or in which grace upon grace is imparted to us.  Even though we can’t measure in objective ways the degree to which we are becoming like Christ (or, perhaps, healthier, happier), there are subjective measures: the fruits of the spirit, the sense of God’s will in community, etc.  All ripe for manipulation and abuse, mind you, but useful and helpful in healthy, humble spiritual communities.

I was talking with a friend the other day about whether or not I believe that there’s anything soteriological (saving, in a spiritual sense) about the Eucharist, which Christians also call the Lord’s Supper or Communion.   I’ve believed all kinds of things about the Lord’s Supper over the years, but right now I’m at the point of saying “I don’t believe the Eucharist saves us, but when I take it week to week, and when I go up in front of church of anointing, I….”

“Meet Jesus,” my friend said.


Nothing in my practice or study of various Christian spiritualities convinces me that God requires us to be saved by the Eucharist, but I do think God uses whatever God can from our traditions, and from our need for tradition, to meet us where we are.  I’ve referred to this elsewhere as God deigning to be part of our rituals and practices, but really, it’s more than that.  I think maybe God delights in the opportunity. “Hey, man, thanks for being here. Oh, you need to eat?  Eating is like the most communal thing you do, not just with each other but with all of nature, too?  Well then, friend, when you do it, think of me.”

Did God meet Homer Simpson in what began as a hot-pepper trip? In the person of a God-voiced coyote?  Do I meet God in the act of Communion? Yes, I know I can only speak for myself, and I know The Simpsons is a cartoon. But I also know there’s a lot of mystery in the universe, that our brains do amazing things when given the chance to rest, to solve problems, to sleep, to mediate, to dissolve in the great freeing spaces of spiritual practice or prayer or circadian rhythms.  I heard Tony Campolo saying the other day that when Mother Theresa prayed, she really just listened and believed that God listened, too.  Nurturing our own vision quests requires a certain kind of listening, I think, and that’s different for each of us.  For me, it’s lately been poetry, prayer, meditation and honoring my fearfully, wonderf’ly made self by taking better care to eat right and sleep better.

What is it for you? Let’s not fail to start.

Sinéad O’Connor and the New Catholic Church

So Far... The Best of Sinéad O'Connor
Image via Wikipedia

Sinéad O’Connor has a moving piece up at The Huffington Post. Please read it.

UPDATE: I just said this below in the comments but it really does bear saying here: I should say that I’m one of these typically low-church protestant types, but that I find much to love in the contemplative traditions of the Catholic Church and other Christian communities.  I hope my posting of this piece doesn’t come across as anti-Catholic by any stretch. I was just very moved by it, and impressed with its cogency. A far cry, indeed, from what was done on SNL all those years ago.

Ash Wednesday and the Value of Tradition

painted cross on iron grate

Today marks the beginning of the forty-day Christian liturgical season known as Lent, a time of reflection, contemplation, and perhaps even sacrifice in preparation for the coming of the Holy Week that culminates in the celebration of Christ’s Easter resurrection. Throughout the world on Wednesday, Christians from across denominations and traditions will make themselves known through the imposition of ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads, small but conspicuous statements about their spiritual identities and, I suspect, their most pressing hopes.

We know from Tolkien that not all who wander are lost. The inverse, of course, is also true. Not all who find themselves moved to religious ritual are finished seeking. Most aren’t, even as many of us wander in and through various religious orbits, spiritual practices, and times of communion and estrangement from God and from each other. Those who will bear the mark of Christ’s cross on Ash Wednesday do so for different, even disparate reasons. Some will wear it as a proud (and I don’t mean prideful) badge, a faithful, even kerygmatic public statement. Some  receive the ashes and the Wednesday blessing because of the long pull of tradition. Others are compelled to it by a desire for that same pull and the hope that God might meet us in it. Not all, and perhaps not even many, who wander are lost. Not all who wear ashes are cradle Christians or Christian converts. Not all who take pause on Ash Wednesday will go on to observe a Christian Lent. Not all who hope for Easter’s promise necessarily believe it. Not all who want to feel able. But I do believe, somehow, that all who seek God will find.

I’ve never been much of an Ash-wearer, but I became one last year when confronted with the thousands-fold witness of marked heads on the subway. It was not so much the numbers themselves, but the odd occurrences: every other person in the long corridors beneath Time Square, every fourth or fifth on the 3, a small group walking towards me as I surfaced to street level. If a sacrament is, as theologians are fond of saying, a visible sign of an invisible truth, these pilgrims were sacraments for me. Their willingness to be marked as believers or seekers, and, in either case,  people needing something, made me willing, too. Going up the wrong flight of stairs at 14th Street Station and hitting the street at the Church of the Village meant I was greeted with a sign proclaiming Imposition. So then there I was, and there, it seemed, was God. I received ashes and a blessing, a charge to repent, believe, and live. In short, I was moved, felt something, lost my bearings. I didn’t know which way to walk when I came back out to the street. I believe I had a profound, even mystical experience, not because I succumbed to a ritual I’d never valued, but because I believe God uses what God can to meet us where we are. For me, a provisional-at-best Christian, a seminary grad burned out on church and religion, it was the totally new experience of ashes, of anointing prayer and blessing. It was whatever God said to my spirit while the bishop spoke to me.

Over the past year, I’ve found myself much more interested in the mystical Christian traditions than ever before, and needing them. I’ve felt more at home around ritual and process so long as I approach them from humility and from the recognition that God is always bigger than the things we do and that when God meets us in those things, it’s because God is God, not because we’ve done religious work God deems cosmically essential.  But it’s also true that our drive to meet God in places carved out by tradition echos something cosmically essential: an understanding that we want and need the mystical, the holy; a hope that God will meet us wherever it is we seek to find.

This Ash Wednesday, I am reminded that the power of Christian ritual has absolutely nothing to do with it being set down by patriarchs with apostolic authority or some other contrived historiography that super-values the existential (and perhaps compulsive) needs of long-dead saints.  For me, our rituals, like our stories, are opportunities to embrace the basic Christian claim: the in-breaking of God at every turn, the furious longing on God’s part for time and eternity with us.