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The Catholic Bishops and the Morality of Government Mandates


The Catholic bishops are absolutely correct in their criticism of the Obama administration’s decision to require all employers, including all religious institutions, to provide health insurance that makes contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-inducing drugs available to their employees. The mandate is both unconstitutional and morally objectionable.

The Obama administration appears to be making the political calculation that the controversy will subside well before the election. This could be a mistake, for this is an issue that has the potential to energize an otherwise demoralized conservative base of voters. Indeed, the controversy seems to be heating up as Orthodox, Evangelical, and Jewish leaders have joined the Catholics on the barricades in opposition to the presidential diktat.

Ironically, the president could be spared the political fallout from his own decision if Obamacare is ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which would nullify the mandate in question.

Regardless of how this issue is settled, it has raised some fundamental questions regarding the proper role of government in our society.

While the Catholic bishops are rightfully indignant over being forced to subsidize practices they believe to be immoral and evil (contraception and abortion), they have been silent over the general question of whether the federal government has authority to force any employer to provide any benefit to employees. Why should only nonprofit religious institutions be exempt from such mandates? Do not the values and convictions of all employers matter? What about the immorality of the government interfering in the contractual relationship between two consenting adults (employer and employee)?

The bishops have long-considered government-provided health care and other aspects of the modern welfare state to be an expression of “Christian charity.” Religious leaders often speak of the necessity of a government-provided “social safety net.” Perhaps they believed their institutions, being religious, would be treated differently than others and be spared the state’s suffocating embrace. But they forgot an important principle: once you tolerate the violation of one group’s rights, everybody’s rights become vulnerable.

I am reminded of what the German theologian Martin Niemöller said in a different context:

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.

Had the Catholic bishops and other religious leaders joined ranks with libertarians and conservatives to form a united front in opposition to the welfare state in the 1960s, they would be on firmer ground today.

Rather than issuing vague appeals to “social justice,” the bishops should have spent the last few decades standing up for the rights of individuals to be free from confiscatory taxation and condemning the welfare state as contrary to human dignity. Consider how many more good works Catholic churches could perform if their parishioners weren’t fleeced by the taxman. They would have that much more to toss into the collection plate every Sunday. And the largesse would be an example of genuine Christian charity, as it would be obtained through voluntary donations rather than through (forced) taxation.

The Catholic bishops should have foreseen that the government’s incremental intrusions into American medicine over the years would create a myriad of ethical and moral problems, and they should have warned their flock accordingly.

Socialized healthcare systems are not innovative and are notoriously inefficient, which inevitably results in lower quality of care and long waiting lines. This leads to de facto euthanasia as government bean counters impose rationing. The old and infirm are often denied care as a matter of cost saving.

Socialist health care also results in gross inequalities, because the best medical resources are reserved for the very wealthy and well connected, who are able to get around the labyrinthine bureaucracies, while the general public is forced to make due with the scraps. And with any tax-supported health-care system it is inevitable that taxpayers will be forced to pay for practices that many consider morally objectionable, such as abortion, infanticide, and contraception.

Medical care in the United States still ranks very high in terms of quality and accessibility, but the system is a grotesque creature born out of an unholy union between the government and rent-seeking corporations. It is unsustainable and desperately needs to be reformed. But the problem is that most of those calling for “health-care reform” disparage the free market and advocate more corporatism and further government intrusion into private medicine — hence the corporatist monstrosity called Obamacare.

Sheldon Richman, editor of the Freeman, writes of the current health-care debate:

Almost no one is calling for a free market in health care. Doctors want regulations that free them to practice as they wish, while still having the government assure that everyone can get health insurance and thus pay doctors for practicing as they wish. Patients want as much care as they need and desire, paid for by others. Insurance companies want to maintain their cozy relationships with state regulators, built up over years, and not have to compete nationally, and are therefore opposed to calls to end the prohibition of interstate sales of health insurance. Everyone calls for help from the State, which, as Bastiat pointed out, is the fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.

In order to have a free and productive society, the American people have to disabuse themselves of the notion that the government’s role is to provide basic needs like medical care. Government control of health care means government bureaucrats issuing tyrannical decrees and invading the doctor-patient sanctum to impose their will. And it also means the government micromanaging our lives, because virtually every decision we take as individuals can be construed to have an impact on our health. The nanny state quickly becomes the total state.

The fundamental problem with government programs is that they all entail coercion, which means less freedom and choice for individuals. As the state expands, liberty recedes, and society is materially and morally impoverished.

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    Tim Kelly is a columnist and policy advisor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia, a correspondent for Radio America’s Special Investigator, and a political cartoonist.