Exploring My Own Inconsistency on the Contraception Debate

This whole brouhaha over the Obama administration requiring Catholic institutions (not churches) to provide contraception has me thinking. I fear that my support for this requirement is unprincipled. I want to argue that access to women’s healthcare takes precedence over the freedom of religious groups not to have to participate in systems they find offensive. Women deserve some control over their lives (as much as control of one’s life is something one can be said to possess)–which is to say, how and with whom they desire to see those lives unfold. I am profoundly troubled by a state of affairs that allows men to dictate to women the appropriate use and care of women’s bodies.

Contraception has arguably been as liberating to women and the projects they take up for themselves as any other single phenomenon in history.  Consequently, any move that appears to take a step back, toward wresting control from women, strikes me as wrongheaded tout court.

On the other hand, I also want to resist the government telling me that I need to participate in something I find offensive on religious grounds. My primary commitments, to the extent that they are rooted in some sort of status defined by citizenship, are not first to the government of the United States of America, but to that new transnational community made manifest in the reign of God. Consequently, when my loyalties find themselves in conflict, I am neither necessarily persuaded nor cowed by the admonition to “do my duty as a U.S. citizen.” I do render unto Caesar, but my submission is always tempered by the knowledge that, in the end, it all belongs to God.

Nevertheless, in this issue of mandating employers to provide contraception, I come down on the side of the government against the Catholic bishops. I think it’s true that the equity achieved for women by compelling certain Catholic institutions (not churches) to provide contraception through the insurance policies they administer outweighs the need of the Catholic hierarchy to keep its institutional hands clean.[1]

I find my inconsistency when it comes to this issue vexing. When I take a stand on an issue, I like to stand on firmer ground than what may be interpreted as “mere preference.” In other words, I don’t like to leave myself open to the charge that “he’s just saying it’s true because that’s what he wants to be true.” I like my hard-won moral positions to be unassailable against charges of individual moral convenience. And while I do believe that a woman’s access to contraception ought to prevail over the objection that, in some cases, that access must be accomplished by trampling the theological prerogative of the Catholic Church, I find myself troubled by inhabiting a position that compels people of faith to do something they find offensive on religious grounds.

On the other hand, I wonder why the Catholic Church isn’t nearly as concerned to speak up on my behalf when, as a Christian pacifist, I am compelled to pay taxes to support armed conflict, which I find morally offensive, and of a theological nature more pressing than contraception. Where is the carefully practiced ecclesiastical umbrage of my colleagues in the episcopate when I am forced to support the violent taking of human life, for the simple reason that those humans happen to have been born in a time zone and with a passport different from my own?

If postmodernism has taught us anything, perhaps it is that the rigor of principled consistency is always just beyond our reach, and that to make it the sine qua non of moral reasoning is to have doomed oneself to a stultifying and, I think, damaging rigidity.

Whatever the case, I’m fine with being inconsistent in this particular instance.

  1. Robert T. Miller asks: “By what logic, however, does the Church restrict this argument to just religious institutions? If these practices are morally wrong in the way the Church clearly says they are, how may the government force any employer who objects to them to funding them? Do the Catholic bishops believe that the government may legitimately compel people do wrong, unless such people are religious institutions?”  ↩