Here is a dyspeptic piece by Garry Wills which gets numerous things wrong about the nature of the conscience claim being asserted in response to the HHS mandate. Under the heading, “The Phony Religious Liberty Argument,” Wills says:
The bishops’ opposition to contraception is not an argument for a “conscience exemption.” It is a way of imposing Catholic requirements on non-Catholics. This is religious dictatorship, not religious freedom.
Contraception is not even a religious matter. Nowhere in Scripture or the Creed is it forbidden. Catholic authorities themselves say it is a matter of “natural law,” over which natural reason is the arbiter—and natural reason, even for Catholics, has long rejected the idea that contraception is evil. More of that later; what matters here is that contraception is legal, ordinary, and accepted even by most Catholics.
The confusions in these short paragraphs are astonishing, particularly for a writer of Wills’s deserved reputation. First, whether “most Catholics,” including Wills, “accept” contraception is completely irrelevant. The issue is not what Wills, or any other dissident Catholic, thinks ordinary or accepts. The issue is what those with authority to speak on behalf of the Catholic Church believe. And we have strong evidence that they believe that paying for contraception and abortifacient services is anathema. The Church is a hierarchical institution, and so it matters who has authority to speak on its behalf to the agents of the state. Much as it may distress him, that’s not Wills.
Second, to say that opposition to the mandate represents “religious dictatorship” may sound good, but the substance of the comment is wrong. No one — least of all “the bishops” — is preventing anyone from obtaining whatever products they like. No one is monitoring anyone, no one is tracking the way that employees use their money, no one is stopping anyone else from using their money as they like. The issue is not “dictatorship” — religious or secular — and this sort of overheated rhetoric is quite silly. The issue is whether the state can compel the religious employer to pay for products for its employees as to which it objects in conscience (I am bracketing the question of what President Obama’s February 10 announcement does). Obviously there are disagreements about that question. But the resolution of that issue, one way or the other, is not evidence of “dictatorship.” It’s something far short of that, but something we ought to attend to nevertheless.