Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

On the Religion Law list of legal scholars, as you might imagine, considerable attention has been given in recent days to the contraception mandate cases pending before various courts.  During those discussions, I posted a message designed to challenge that largely skeptical audience to entertain the possibility that women and men of intelligence and good faith could reasonably depart from the conventional wisdom in academia that artificial contraception is essential to human progress and gender equality.  With that in mind, I suggested that a counter-cultural community grounded in such values should be, not just grudgingly tolerated, but liberally allowed the breathing room to thrive in a diverse and free society.

Because I received so many encouraging private messages, from across the political spectrum and from those on both sides of the contraception debate, I am setting out that message below:

Following up on yesterday’s conversation, let me approach the question of Catholic resistance to the contraception mandate as a plea for something more than grudging tolerance of different opinion but rather a request for a more “liberal” acceptance of a community with an alternative view of the good life.  At the outset, I emphasize that my primary purpose here is not to persuade you that this alternative view is better.  I am not even arguing today that those who advocate for ready and cost-free access to artificial contraception should refrain from advancing that policy preference through political means.  My aim of the moment is much more modest, which is to contend that in a free and diverse society, public policy should leave ample breathing room for a community with a counter-cultural understanding on these important questions.

I appreciate that contraception is widely viewed throughout the academy as an unalloyed positive social good, even a “revolutionary” and necessary step for women’s equality.  Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to describe the pro-contraception position as the privileged narrative in the academy.  The contrary view is seldom heard in the halls of the typical law school and not much respected on the irregular occasion that it is voiced.  Those who resist the use of artificial contraception are regarded at best as being quaint or in need of consciousness-raising and are seen at worst as retrograde believers in a subservient role for women as incessant baby-makers.  Through this post, I want to challenge this group of open-minded scholars to entertain the possibility that women and men of sound mind and good heart, many of “feminist” inclinations, can reasonably and even joyfully embrace an alternative worldview that embraces sexuality as a gift but excludes artificial contraception.

The perspective that I sketch here, inartfully, is that shared with me by many friends, colleagues, and former students—Catholic women who accept the Church’s teaching on sexuality and contraception, not as a rigid doctrinal imposition, but as a gift.  And these are successful professional women, who have satisfying careers as lawyers or law professors, which they have integrated with fulfilling personal and family lives.  For on-line examples of these voices, although I do not know these women personally, I suggest these links: http://catholicmoraltheology.com/catholics-contraception-and-feminisms/ and http://www.integratedcatholiclife.org/2012/07/lorraine-murray-catholic-womans-journey-with-contraception

For the orthodox Catholic women that I have known in professional settings, they have not experienced the ready availability of artificial contraception as liberating.  Rather, they have seen the assumption that all women use (or should use) artificial contraception as serving to fuel the hyper-sexualized environment on college campuses, leading to the familiar “hook-up” culture and its devaluation of human sexuality and degradation of women.  Rather than seeing contraception as enhancing equality, these women have seen the presumption of contraceptive use as encouraging men to behave irresponsibly and to treat women as sexual conquests.  In sum, by resisting the contraception narrative, these women have set a different path for romantic relationships.  They believe they have achieved healthier relationships with men.

When these professional women marry, they engage in discourse and planning with their husbands about children, a dialogue that cannot be avoided because contraception is not used to make it possible to avoid the question.  Contrary to the absurd suggestion that women who do not use artificial contraception typically have ten to twenty children, these women know that family planning and artificial contraception are not synonymous, and they insist that modern women have not lost all capacity for self-control.  While they may choose to have larger families than the norm in some circles, the professional Catholic women that I know who joyfully follow Church teaching have families with children ranging in number from a single child to about half a dozen, with most in the two or three range.

Now let us suppose that a particular Catholic community—a Catholic university, let us say—wishes to build an oasis in which young men and women have an alternative to the contraception culture that dominates most of society.  This university builds single-sex dormitories and adopts what we’ll label “parietals” that call for person of the opposite sex to leave a student’s dorm room after a certain time each night.  Every student admitted to the university (and every faculty or staff member employed by the university) is well aware of the Church’s teaching and of the university’s considered policies in accordance with that teaching.

Knowing that their students are real people and not angels, the Catholic university leadership understands that not all young men and women on campus will succeed in living what they believe is a healthier and more satisfying lifestyle.  But a critical mass of students (and faculty and staff) will so succeed within a supportive environment, quite different from that which prevails at most universities.  And not wanting to be oppressive, university leaders certainly will not invade the privacy of students (which itself would be a violation of human dignity) by searching their rooms to ensure that no one brings artificial contraception on campus.  But the university will in no wise facilitate or encourage artificial contraception.

For these reasons, as a faithful witness to the community and as an encouragement to students to live faithfully, this Catholic university will not permit artificial contraception to be dispensed on campus and will not associate itself in any way with those who market or distribute such artificial contraception.  Not wanting to give any scandal or tarnish in any way the Church’s message about the sacred beauty of human sexuality, the university refuses to cooperate or be complicit with distribution of artificial contraception.

Now shouldn’t a genuinely “liberal” and free society not merely tolerate but leave ample breathing room for a community that adopts an alternative view of what it means to thrive as human beings?  Shouldn’t we strive for a public policy respectful of diversity that does not suffocate these countercultural views by all-embracing mandates?  Shouldn’t we be alarmed by a governmental orthodoxy that cannot allow this community to march to a different drummer?


Sisk, Greg | Permalink