Garry Wills Puts the “Con” in Conscience

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.

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6 responses to “Garry Wills Puts the “Con” in Conscience

  1. As a Biblical layman, I’m curious whether you have an objection to his claims about scripture, natural law, and non-procreative sex.

  2. pastrypride, I think his arguments about natural law are contestable, and have been contested by people who know more about it than I do. But that disagreement, at least for me, is entirely beside the point. Even if Wills’s views represented an extremely persuasive take on the proper interpretation of natural law, Wills does not have authority to speak for the Catholic Church. If all it took to defeat a claim of conscience was that somebody, somewhere, had plausibly contested an organization’s theological understanding, there wouldn’t be much left of religious freedom.

  3. Marc,
    I realize the question of the Catholic Church’s position is a separate question from what’s said in scripture. You consider the scriptural question beside the point, but that’s exactly what I’m asking about.

  4. The question you ask is a very complicated one, and one which has generated lots of debate. I have found this short statement from the BBC to be helpful with respect to the issues you ask about: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/christianethics/contraception_1.shtml

    I also think that the justification for the Catholic Church’s views can be found in its Catechism, and particularly section 2270 and following.

  5. Marc,
    The BBC page is a nice overview. It seems to me to support Wills’ scriptural claims.

    I looked at catechism 2270-2280 or so and couldn’t find anything at all connected to contraception.

  6. Sorry — the right passages of the catechism are 2331-2400, though I disagree with you that the passages about abortion are irrelevant.

    I don’t think it’s a fair characterization of the BBC page to say that it supports Wills’s scriptural claims. I note also that initially you had asked about natural law. The points set out by the BBC page do not support Wills’s views about natural law.

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