Sitting down to lunch at work last week, I picked up the faculty copy of the New York Times to find an intriguing front page article regarding the “law,” “contraception,” and “Catholic campuses”. The key words of the article’s title already outlined the conflict of values and moral vision between the Catholic moral tradition and the secular American language of legal rights more and more prevalent in our country today. I read the article, put the paper down, and sat for a few moments, pondering the complexity of the values at stake in the story. I then picked up the paper again and repeated the endeavor. After the second reading, I was still grappling with the discomfort of being a committed Catholic and also a dutiful American. Faithful citizenship, for me, is not an easy road to travel; it is as difficult as threading the eye of a needle.
To find clarity, I did what I ask my students to do in our junior and senior-level courses on moral theology—I consulted the Church’s tradition. Examining the seven principles of Catholic social teaching I fell upon the principle of “Rights and Responsibilities,” laid out by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, stating:
The Catholic tradition teaches that human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met. Therefore, every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities–to one another, to our families, and to the larger society. (www.usccb.org)
The language of rights, although harkening to figures like John Locke in the 17th century, and more recently John Rawls in the 20th, is not exclusively the domain of secular political philosophy. The Church employs this same language to touch upon fundamental dignity of the human person and the consequent liberties commensurate with that dignity which include “life and those things required for human decency.” Though the latter component requires elaboration and contextual application, it does abrogate the following statement that rights bear corresponding responsibilities. Human beings are graced with free will and reason to cooperate with God’s loving plan for creation, and no authority, secular or ecclesiastical, can infringe upon those capacities. This, however, does not give us license to actualize those capacities with impunity. As Peter Parker (aka. Spider-Man) learns, “with great power there must also come–great responsibility!” So too for us.
Re-visiting the article from the New York Times, the situation now came into greater focus for me. There are competing claims to rights here. There is a call for access to affordable health care. There is a call to religious liberty and freedom of conscience. These rights are both worthy and required for human decency. What is lost in the article, and became clearer to me, are the responsibilities incumbent upon those who claim the rights. Catholic institutions are not asking those dependent on them to abrogate their rights to health care for the sake of their right to freedom of conscience. They are asking those participating in and benefiting from their institutional missions to responsibly bear those rights. Christian doctrine invites us to steward our health, making decisions that promote the dignity of our bodies and relationships with others. This is at the heart of the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics and its position on artificial contraception and abortion. It invites human beings act in ways that do not create consequent conflicts of values and conscience that follow from earlier irresponsibility. And, when we do err, the Church encourages integrity and praises the fortitude to bear the greater responsibility confident that God’s grace is sufficient for our human poverty.
Coincidentally, following the Communion Rite at mass this past Sunday, a letter from Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn was read, addressing the directive by the Department of Health and Human Services. An image of that letter is posted below, inviting all to consider taking action as faithful citizens of nation. With clearer vision, I will do my part.