Clashes of conscience

Should American lawmakers refuse to give government funding to those who object to the current moral consensus on controversial issues, … Continued

Should American lawmakers refuse to give government funding to those who object to the current moral consensus on controversial issues, or should they be generous in making allowances for conscience?

In recent weeks the U.S. Catholic bishops have been on both sides of this question, as they have dealt with the thorny issues of abortion, on the one hand, and gay rights on the other. Nationally, they don’t want health care reform dollars to subsidize abortion, and in the District of Columbia, they don’t want to lose public funding for Catholic Charities because they conscientiously object to providing equal benefits to gay couples.

Ironically, abortion and discrimination against gays with respect to employment benefits have roughly the same moral status in American life. Both practices are legal, but widely disapproved. Many people, nationally or locally, don’t want tax dollars to go to organizations that practice or promote them. At the same time, significant – although often different – minorities think they have a moral right to seek or provide an abortion, or to treat heterosexual couples more favorably than homosexual couples.

The Catholic bishops have opposed any health reform package which would allow tax dollars to be used to support a policy a health plan that covers abortion. It does not matter how small the government subsidy is compared to the personal contribution, or how low a percent of the premium cost actually goes to abortion coverage. It is not merely the money, it is the principle at stake. In response to the claims of Planned Parenthood and NOW that the conscience of the policyholder ought to be respected, the bishops reply, “we are not prohibiting people from getting abortions entirely with their own money. But we, the majority of Americans, do not want our tax dollars used to support practices or organizations that contravene our basic values.” If push comes to shove, some bishops would let health care reform go and leave millions without necessary medical treatment, rather than subsidize abortion, however tenuously.

But in the enforcement of anti-discrimination law in Washington, D.C gay rights activists are in exactly the same position as the bishops are with respect to abortion–and the Catholic bishops are making the pro-choice argument, so to speak. Gay rights activists maintain that no public funds whatsoever ought to go to an organization that practices or promotes discrimination against gay people. In response to the claim of Catholic Charities that the conscience of the service provider ought to be respected, the activists argue, “we are not prohibiting people from establishing programs that discriminate against gay people using only their own money. But we, the majority of citizens in Washington, D.C., do not want our tax dollars used to support practices or organizations that contravene our basic values.” If push comes to shove, some gay rights activists would let Catholic Charities go and leave thousands in Washington, D.C. homeless and hungry, rather than subsidize discrimination against same sex couples, however indirectly.

Very different groups in our pluralist democracy try to “enforce morality” — or at least to encourage it — by using public funds as an incentive. In this respect, the bishops on abortion are no different from the gay rights activists on employment discrimination. But when they are in the minority, these groups all want space to act according to their consciences without sacrificing participation in public programs. Pro-choice activists don’t want some benefit plans to be excluded from all public support because they cover abortion, and bishops don’t want Catholic Charities to be excluded from all public support because they practice discrimination against gay couples in granting employment benefits.

There is no easy way to resolve the theoretical tension between respect for moral truth and respect for consciences which disagree with the majority’s best assessment of truth. A crude moral relativism that allows everyone to do their thing is no answer. If most abortions are unjust killing, then those who support it are perpetuating a real injustice. If discrimination against same sex couples is irrational, those who promote it are trading in harmful prejudice. But a moral majoritarianism that proclaims error has no rights isn’t the solution either. History tells too many tales of the majority being mistaken on matters such as slavery, religious liberty, and the rights of aboriginal peoples. Furthermore no one group of people, religious or secular, has been exempt from making mistakes.

But practically, here and now, all parties have strong reason to work out a compromise that respects the integrity of everyone involved. Such a compromise was worked out in San Francisco with respect to providing employment benefits; the Archdiocese provided benefits to households, including but not limited to same-sex partners.

The Catholic bishops, on the one hand, and pro-choice and gay rights activists, on the other, all need to the win minds and hearts of ordinary Americans before they can accomplish their very different goals of social reform. And you don’t win the minds and hearts of ordinary Americans by holding the food, shelter and medical care of needy people hostage to moral principle.

At least not in the holiday season.

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  • norriehoyt

    This is an intelligent and useful column which I would amend as shown below:From the column: “And you don’t win the minds and hearts of ordinary Americans by holding the food, shelter and medical care of needy people hostage to moral principle.”Amend by adding:”And you also don’t win the minds and hearts of ordinary Americans by preventing women from prudently and foresightedly buying an insurance policy which covers abortion.”

  • norriehoyt

    These abortion issues consume vast quantities of paper and ink and are tedious for many people, including me.I was a member of the Vermont House of Representatives in the 1970’s. We occasionally had an abortion question to vote on.I noted at the time that on abortion votes every member went home and voted with his tribe. My tribe is of liberal Protestant stock so I always voted for abortion rights.Based on that experience and whatever wisdom I derived from it, I avoid the tedium of getting entangled in abortion arguments by adhering to a simple principle: Whatever the Roman hierarchy wants is bad, bad, bad, and likely to provide a one-way passage ticket to the abyss and everlasting fire.I commend this principle to all – it will make your life simpler and less complicated.

  • lepidopteryx

    In this respect, the bishops on abortion are no different from the gay rights activists on employment discrimination. But when they are in the minority, these groups all want space to act according to their consciences without sacrificing participation in public programs.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    I’m trying to follow the logic here. Consensus of the people, no. RCC moral guide, yes?NonGod, bless the majority, then.

  • Paganplace

    This article draws a false equivalence.In fact, it is in both cases of ‘abortion’ and gay marriage equality, that the Church wants to force its way on others. Civil marriage is civil marriage. It is not up for a referendum. One’s right to do with her own body as required is also not up for a referendum. This is not about ‘right and wrong,’ so much as some religions’ claiming the right and influence to *deny* rights to others, based solely on their claims to represent some religious authority.They don’t have the *right* to decide for people of other religions, via state power, how others are treated by our nation. They simply don’t. If the Church had it’s way with government, I’d have to not have health care, pretend to be straight, not use contraception, suddenly apparently become unable to make reproductive choices while of course being too ‘objectively disordered’ to raise kids unless of course… I aforementionedly fake being straight and accept someone else’s authority over the conduct of my own family life… …accept complete disenfranchisement in electing my own government and petitioning for a redress of grievances, should anyone who chooses to disciminate claim ‘conscience,’ do my petitioning in a context where being queer was still criminalized, carry rape babies to term, allow the ‘fathers’ thereof custody rights, while in my own life… I’m supposed to say I don’t want my ‘tax dollars’ supporting health care for all and freedom of conscience for all under Liberty and the rule of rational laws?The Church is the one that wants to use religious influence to enforce its religious doctrines over all others through use of state power, even to the point of doing the exact opposite of what was promised when JFK was elected: that they would *not* use threats like the withholding of ‘Communion’ and the damnation that’s to follow to try and coerce any Catholic politician to obey bishops if he ever says ‘Enforcing dogma is not my *job.*’ If the Church wants to deny civil justice and sabotage health care for all just to have its way about its theology, it both shows it has too much influence in politics already, and also admits it has no power to really convince others by reason or ‘spirituality’ to do to people what it wants government to do for them.Meanwhile, it claims ‘private charities’ can do better than government ones… But if you aren’t allowed to use *my* tax dollars to oppress me.. the line’s always, ‘Oh, we can’t do this unless we can use government funds to discriminate.’ Posh. Your choice.

  • Paganplace

    Cause all I see in cases like this is the Church using its government influence and funding to hold poor and hungry people *hostage* …if queers and women in general aren’t made to submit to their dogma by government force. I say they are abusing what they were entrusted with, as always.

  • MikeInDC3

    Ms. Kaveny wants to blame all parties in her article. She will hold her nose up in the air, write an article and never attend MCC, Dignity (gay Catholics), visit those for months at a time who have seen the need to have an abortion rather then expose another human being to a ruined life, for her to understand. Yet, she will conference with Catholic leaders, enjoy her Catholic mass, give a hug to those wailing about the abuse of those wailing against the Catholic church and pat herself on her back. It’s too bad, she needs to come out of her office and her send button to live amongst the masses as one of us. Then those fingers she is pointing, might be able to point without a judgmental hook.

  • MikeInDC3

    Ms. Kaveny wants to blame all parties in her article. She will hold her nose up in the air, write an article and never attend MCC, Dignity (gay Catholics), visit those for months at a time who have seen the need to have an abortion rather then expose another human being to a ruined life, for her to understand. Yet, she will conference with Catholic leaders, enjoy her Catholic mass, give a hug to those wailing about the abuse of those wailing against the Catholic church and pat herself on her back. It’s too bad, she needs to come out of her office and her send button to live amongst the masses as one of us. Then those fingers she is pointing, might be able to point without a judgmental hook.

  • thebump

    It is shocking that someone who can produce such ignorant tripe holds a responsible position at any law school, much less at a formerly-Catholic institution.Contrary to the authoress’s shockingly ignorant claim, the AOW isn’t holding its charitable activities hostage. They will continue.Even more shocking is the false equivalence that the authoress so feebly and ridiculously proposes. There is a right to life. There is no right to demand society change the definition of marriage. So-called same-sex “marriage” is an absurdity, a nullity and a fiction. It has nothing whatever to do with rights or discrimination. The Church’s position on monkeying with the definition of marriage is the same as Oboobma’s (who I would wager is the authoress’s beloved messiah).You’d think a law professor would be bright enough to understand that.