Pope John Paul II often said that when it comes to her moral teachings, the Catholic “Church proposes: she imposes nothing.” One of the things that he meant by this was that the Church has a complete respect for human freedom in choosing to follow her teachings or not. However the American Church has often shown too much respect for this freedom to the point of not actually proposing the saving truths of the faith. This has led to a culture in which the teachings have been severed from the Church’s pastoral practice. This has become very obvious in the past few years in the Church’s fight against the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate on contraception. The American Bishops now find themselves not only opposed by the unjust HHS mandate, but also an overwhelming majority of those who profess to be Catholic. Although this has placed the Bishops’ Conference on the defensive, the situation presented a tremendous opportunity to go on the offensive and to present the reasonableness of the Church’s teachings to an attentive public. Much of the damage that was done to the Church since 1968 could be undone if this opportunity is seized. The crisis that had been created by the HHS mandate has brought to the forefront two important areas of Catholic teachings that have been ignored. They have been ignored not so much because no one believes them but because no one actually teaches them. The first is not so obvious, while the second is more obvious.
The Forgotten Principle
For many Catholics, Social Justice is a rallying point. However, most would be hard pressed to name the four principles which “constitute the very heart of Catholic social teaching.” They may be able to name three of them—the dignity of the human person, the common good, and solidarity—but would be at a loss to come up with the fourth, subsidiarity.
The Catechism defines subsidiarity as the principle by which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” It serves as a guard against collectivism by setting limits on state intervention. It is certainly the case that government has many necessary and indispensable functions to play roles that cannot be accomplished by individuals acting alone or even by smaller groups in society. Nevertheless, governments often exceed their legitimate role by absorbing individuals and groups in society in order to control them. This leads to what John Paul II referred to in Centesimus Annus as “a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.”
Because of man’s social nature and his vocation to holiness, he needs moral space within society to “to work out his salvation in fear and trembling.” Part of respecting the dignity of the human person means respecting this moral space by allowing men to perform those duties themselves that help them grow in virtue. For example, a man who works to provide for his family is given the opportunity to grow in virtue (thereby increasing his dignity) while the man who receives government subsidies for an indeterminate period of time does not. Pius XI had this in mind when he introduced the principle of subsidiarity into the corpus of Catholic Social Teaching in Quadragesimo Anno. He summarized it as:
“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them. The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands.” (Quadragesimo Anno, 79-80)
Because subsidiarity guards against collectivist tendencies, it is an important principle to emphasize in a time when there appears to be a trend towards a more Socialistic state. However this principle is rarely ever taught or emphasized. While individual bishops often appeal to the principle of subsidiarity, the Bishops’ Conference as a whole rarely makes reference to it. In fact it is not even listed as one of the “Themes of Catholic Teaching” on the Justice, Peace and Development section of the USCCB’s website. Had a greater emphasis been placed on this principle, we may not have seen the initial widespread support by the Bishops of President Obama’s Health Care Plan of which the HHS mandate is an offshoot.
There is a more subtle danger however that is in play here as well. When the principle of subsidiarity is ignored, the people slowly grow accustomed to surrendering exercise of their free will. They become so dependent upon the Centralized State that even when they are called upon to exercise their free choice, they no longer have the desire or the even the ability. In this case, many people simply don’t care about the larger implications of the mandate’s attack on freedom of conscience and religious liberty.
While the Church is garnering so much attention, this is an excellent time to emphasize this principle once again. Because the Church is viewed as “out of touch” by many, emphasis upon this very practical principle may help to open many Americans’ eyes to see the Church as a source of great wisdom in other areas too.
A Hidden Danger Reveals the Truth We Are Hiding
As the Church combats the mandate, much of the emphasis has been placed upon the assault on conscience and religious freedom. While this may present a clearer legal path clearer legal path to fight it in the Court there needs to be a second point of emphasis.
To say that we are opposed to the mandate because it violates our conscience is not the whole story. To only label it as against a Catholic conscience is to imply that it is only wrong because it violates our conscience. One quickly concludes if they do not feel it violates their conscience then it is not wrong for them. This is why the overwhelming majority of Catholics do not care about this issue. The fact is that the Church is not opposed to the mandate primarily because it represents a violation of our conscience, but because it is intrinsically wrong. And because it is wrong, it violates our conscience. This is a very important distinction that needs to be emphasized in a time when we hear so much about the “primacy of conscience.”
Likewise it may be politically expedient to emphasize the HHS mandate as an attack on religious liberty, but this can also serve to confuse. First of all, religious liberty only extends to the point where public safety is threatened. Once it goes beyond this point, the government, as protector of the common good, must intervene. If contraception is merely a matter of Catholic dogma then the government can argue that the Church is a threat to the common good by withholding the so called “benefits” of contraception. In truth however, the Church’s teaching on contraception should not be viewed as a religious belief in the sense that it belongs to divine revelation, but as one that is rooted in human nature itself.
That is why the Church must seize the opportunity to present her teachings on the reasons why contraception represents a grave evil. Contraception is wrong not primarily because the Church says so, but because we can use human reason to come to this conclusion. Rather than present the issue as something unique to Catholics, we must be able to put forth anew the natural law arguments for the intrinsic evil of contraception. Despite the fact that moral relativism appears to have won the day, as Americans there is still an awareness that there are certain self-evident truths about man that bind our country together. Therefore natural law language resonates in our hearts even if we cannot articulate what the natural law is.
The Natural Law tradition is based on the idea that using our reason we can look to human nature to decide what is intrinsically good for us. Anything that we do to harm one of these intrinsic goods would be morally wrong. This is because it thwarts true human thriving and thus ultimately harmful to us. One of these intrinsic goods is marriage and procreation. Natural law tells us that contraception, because it directly harms the good of marriage and procreation, is wrong. Contraception does not merely stop procreation from happening, but because the procreative power is the only thing that unites the spouses as one physical organism, it harms the conjugal meaning as well. It should be emphasized repeatedly that this argument does not directly invoke God directly (even though as the author of the Natural Law He remains hidden so to speak) or the authority of the Church. The Church is simply passing on the wisdom attached to the Natural Law tradition faithfully.
For our fellow Christians who have been duped into believing that contraception represents a great good one can also look to Divine Revelation to illumine Natural Law. This remains an important function of the Church. In so doing we find that marriage is to be analogous to the relationship of Christ with His Church. This is a relationship that is based on Christ’s free, total and faithful gift of Himself. Once again we find that contraception distorts this analogy because the gift of the spouses to each other in the marital embrace is no longer total.
Pope Benedict often said that a misunderstanding of the meaning of pastoral has done untold damage to the Church. The “pastoral approach” does not mean that you in any way adjust the truth to a person’s life so as to “meet them where they’re at.” Instead, to be pastoral means to present the truth and then help the person adjust their lives to it. This approach still means meeting the other where they are, but it means picking up the burden of helping God move them into the light of the truth. We are now reaping the fruits of the first approach and the only way out is to adopt the second. This means we must embrace this opportunity while we have everyone’s attention and trust the saving power of the truth. After all the Truth is not merely a set of ideas, but a divine Person.