Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I’ve been approaching the HHS issue from a conscience standpoint, because arguing via morality v. immorality of contraception doesn’t yield many results from people who don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.
But I got sidelined by a pretty good argument that I don’t know how to respond to:
What about JW’s and blood transfusions? Would I want a JW employer to be able to deny me blood transfusion coverage due to his moral issues with the procedure? Does preventing that violate his conscience rights?
Apropos our discussion here on March 14 about the Christian abrogation of ritual impurity laws vs. Christian upholding (and transcendence of) the moral law, this is a related issue.
The Church’s insistence that the HHS mandate is an assault on religious liberty is very true. But something risks getting lost in all the back and forth about the matter: which is the question of why the Church thinks this is so grave a matter that she is willing to go to court and even to jail about it.
Non-Catholics (and even most Catholics) don’t really seem to grasp that this is not a matter of ritual impurity, like a Jew being forced to eat pork, or a Muslim being compelled to touch a dog—or a Jehovah Witness refusing a blood transfusion. Rather, it is that the Church teaches (and has always taught) that contraception is contrary, not to the ceremonial law of the Old Testament (which has been fulfilled and therefore retired in Christ), but to the moral law (which has been preserved and elevated to the law of love in Christ). Because of this, the Church teaches that artificial contraception is harmful, not just to Catholics, but to all human persons. So though she is not trying to legislate what dissenting Catholics and others choose to do in the civil sphere, she does draw the line at being forced to help facilitate what she insists is gravely evil for both spouses and their children.
So what’s the difference between that and a Jehovah Witness refusing to cover your blood transfusion? Simply this: the prohibition against transfusions is a Jehovah Witness riff on the Old Testament ritual prohibition against eating blood. (“You shall not eat blood, for the blood is the life.”). The sane hierarchy of values in the Catholic tradition is that the love of God is first and the love of neighbor is second. We are to love our neighbor as ourself, so this implies a duty to love and preserve one’s own life where appropriate (which is why it is a sin to throw our life away in suicide, but a virtue to be willing to lay down our life for the love of God and neighbor). After the duty to respect life, there is the duty to respect freedom (which is why it is evil to enslave another, but a noble act of self-sacrifice to, say, take another’s place as a slave in order to set them free). The higher good trumps the lower. Similarly, property is a right (which is what “You shall not steal” presupposes). But it is not as important a right as freedom or life. So you cannot own a human being as property and you emphatically cannot murder them.
This is why we speak of a “right to life” which trumps the mere demand for personal liberation. All other rights, including the “right to choose” depend on the right to life for the simple reason that you cannot choose anything if you are dead.
In the case of Jehovah Witness theories about blood transfusion, it seems to me then that the issue is whether the notion of ritual defilement trumps the moral law which protects such things as life, freedom, and property. And I think the attitude of Jesus is obvious: the law was made for man, not man for the law. So he heals on the Sabbath, touches ritually defiling lepers, and, mark this, women with hemorrhages rather than let human life be harmed. Likewise, therefore, it seems to me that the need to save life trumps the ritual theories of Jehovah Witnesses.
With contraception, in contrast, we are not looking at life-saving measures for the simple reason that pregnancy is not a disease and babies are not tumors. So there’s no question of a higher right to life trumping the lower right of religious liberty. Rather, we are looking at apostles of desire for consequence-free sex attempting to spitefully force Catholics to pay for something that is morally wrong. Nor, by the way, are we looking at trying to “ban” contraception. We are simply looking at the Catholic insistence that those who regard it as morally repugnant not have their freedom crushed by being forced to pay for it—all while being told that “it’s none of your business what I do in my own bedroom”. Very true. It’s none of my business. So stop making it my business by trying to compel me to pay for it. We are looking at an attempt to smash a perfectly legitimate moral, not ritual, reservation by raw force, simply to punish the Church.