February 29, 2012
Religious Freedom as Confrontation and Inflammatory Rhetoric?
On February 14 of this year, a group of faculty of John Carroll University in Cleveland led by Professor Lauritzen (a professor of religious studies and an individual who has disagreed with Church teachings on marriage, human sexuality, and embryonic stem cell research in the past) wrote a letter to the President of the University calling for a stand against the Church’s authority by John Carroll University and other Catholic and Jesuit universities “in the face of the bishops’ unwillingness to accept the accommodation offered by the Obama administration” regarding the HHS mandate. The faculty letter contends that the stance of the bishops regarding the HHS mandate, which in part addresses free contraception coverage, is confrontational and inflammatory given the Obama administration’s effort to accommodate both religious freedom and the “access to contraception [that] is central to the health and well being of women and children.” Via dotCommonweal, the faculty letter can be found here.
These faculty members at John Carroll claim they are committed to the freedom of conscience and religious freedom, but like many who advocate for human rights, it becomes clear that, in their views, some “rights” trump others. Notwithstanding their recognition that the “bishops have the right to proclaim Catholic teaching vigorously and loudly” (which, incidentally would imply that the clerics, religious, and faithful have the right to believe in Catholic teachings and exercise them in accordance with the law of the Church, the international order, and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution), they contend that anything (including authentic religious freedom and rights of conscience) that conflicts with “access to contraception” that “is central to the health and well being of women and children” is of lesser importance.
In short, their recognition of religious freedom—for individuals, for groups of believers, and for the Church herself—will have to be sacrificed when the issue of the “rights of reproductive health” is on the table.
First of all, there are several matters contained in the letter that necessitate comment. The first is this: why is contraception central to the health and well being of children? Is it because they would be at risk if they did not have access to contraception? But this prompts the anticipated question, why should children have access to contraception? Is sexual encounter the only thing they will do that may endanger their lives? Should we not be more concerned about pre- and post-natal care for them? For essential vaccinations? For basic and good health-care in their formative years? Why should only contraception for children be the only health-care issue which the John Carroll faculty are concerned? Perhaps the letter’s signatories had in mind something else and that the reason why children’s interests are at stake is because if contraception were not made available to adults, the children who result from the “unprotected” sexual encounters may be threatened by other factors such as a difficult life or abortion. The latter point about facing abortion is presented elsewhere in the letter when its authors state that “unplanned pregnancies harm the health of women and children and lead to more abortions.” So, the reasoning seems to be this: if contraception is not paid for by John Carroll University, children’s health will be compromised because they will be aborted if free contraception is not made available to the employees of this Catholic and Jesuit institution. Thus, why can’t John Carroll University go along with everyone else who believes in “family planning services as a part of preventive health care for women”? One answer quickly comes to mind: it is attempting to preserve its Catholic identity which is guarded by the non-derogable right of religious freedom.
But there is a second group of issues that this letter prompts about the bishops’ “resistance” to the “accommodation” and their playing “politics with women’s health.” In this second category of considerations, a central item deals with the Christian Catholic understanding of the nature of the human person. At the Second Vatican Council, the Fathers asked on occasion the fundamental question: quid est homo (what is man; what is the human person)? Is the human person first and last a corporeal entity primarily concerned with sexual encounters at any time with anyone for any or no reason? Or is the human person something else? The bishops and many Catholic faithful have argued otherwise and continue to assert otherwise. If there is a theology of the body as Blessed John Paul II spoke of so often and eloquently, there is surely a theology of the human person which addresses the person’s raison d’être: to live a good, i.e., virtuous, life in preparation for union with God—each person’s undeniable destiny as understood from the Catholic perspective. Unfortunately, the faculty letter addressed to the head of a Catholic university reveals none of this. Moreover, the text echoes the voice too often heard today in human rights discourse that sexual autonomy will always trump the long-established and non-derogable rights which include religious freedom—the right to believe in the question quid est homo and to exercise the answer that inevitably follows.
A principal hallmark of Catholic education has traditionally been that it is the place where God-given human intelligence comprehends the intelligible reality that surrounds the human person and human society so that what is good (i.e., what enables all human persons to flourish on the path to their destinies) can be pursued and what is not can be avoided. The John Carroll University faculty letter does not reveal this fundamental quality of education that employs the moniker “Catholic.” As it does not, there is reason to recall the series of addresses Archbishop Michael Miller delivered in the United States in 2005 and 2006 when he was the Secretary for the Congregation of Catholic Education and where he suggested that there might be need for a kind of “evangelical pruning” for those educational institutions which have compromised their Catholic identity, an identity that clearly and centrally is concerned with the question of what is the human person. I join the many who do not think that this is the right path for John Carroll University to take. Since the authors of the letter upon which I have been offering some comment have urged other institutions to follow their counsel, I do not think that the fruits of their advocacy constitute the proper path for any Catholic institution to pursue unless it wishes to cede its soul, its identity, by casting off the banner of Christ and accepting whatever accommodation might be offered so that “confrontation” and “inflammatory rhetoric” may be avoided.
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