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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 7/2/14

Roman Catholic Moral Reasoning in the Supreme Court Ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) July 2, 2014: As everybody knows, the Roman Catholic bishops in the United States have stirred up an enormous amount of ill-will as the result of their anti-abortion zealotry. The bishops mistakenly claim that distinctively human life begins at the moment of conception -- that is, at the moment when the sperm fertilizes the egg.

So the Roman Catholic bishops object to all 20 FDA-approved forms of contraception that are mandated under Obamacare. But under Obamacare, churches have been exempted from the contraception mandate.

As everybody knows, six of the nine Justices on the Supreme Court today come from a Roman Catholic background. (Disclosure: I come from a Roman Catholic background. However, for many years now, I have not been a practicing Catholic. I am theistic humanist, as distinct from a secular humanist.)

As everybody knows, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the five male Catholic Justices on the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the religious liberty of the owners of Hobby Lobby. The majority ruling held that closely-held corporations such as Hobby Lobby have religious rights.

The owners of Hobby Lobby are evangelical Protestants, not Roman Catholics. The owners objected to the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare. More specifically, the owners objected to having to pay for health insurance for their employees that would cover four specific forms of contraception, because they mistakenly believe those four forms of contraception to be abortion-inducing. (The owners already pay for health insurance that covers the other 16 FDA-approved forms of contraception, all of which the Catholic bishops object to.)

So the Supreme Court ruled that the religious rights of the employers trump the rights of their employees to those four forms of contraception.

As a result of this ruling, we Americans now are going to have both non-profit corporations such as churches and for-profit closely-held corporations such as Hobby Lobby eligible to apply for exemption to the contraception mandate in Obamacare.

But a curious thing emerges in the ruling written by Justice Samuel Alito. Leslie C. Griffin, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, calls attention to this in her essay "Catholic Moral Theology at the Supreme Court" that she posted at the website of the Jesuit-sponsored America Magazine (dated July 2, 2014).

Professor Griffin points out that in footnote 34 Justice Alito cites Fr. Henry Davis's book Moral and Pastoral Theology (1935) as the source of certain supposedly legal reasoning in the text of the majority's ruling. The Roman Catholic Church has a long tradition of carefully worked out moral reasoning about formal and material cooperation with supposed evil.

So let us pause now and savor this. The five Roman Catholic Justices on the Supreme Court of the United States have drawn on their familiarity with Roman Catholic moral reasoning to write the majority ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

In effect, the owners of Hobby Lobby were indeed objecting to their mandated cooperation with supposed evil (i.e., the four forms of contraception that their employees might freely choose to use under Obamacare).

In a fine example of an ecumenical spirit toward the evangelical Protestant owners of Hobby Lobby, the five male Roman Catholic Justices drew on their familiarity with Roman Catholic moral reasoning to write their legal ruling. No doubt the five Roman Catholic Justices could claim that they were exercising their religious freedom by drawing on Catholic moral reasoning in writing their legal ruling.

I don't want to be overly subtle here. We Americans should think of the law and legal reasoning as a smaller circle within the bigger circle of moral reasoning. Moral reasoning should be more comprehensive and inclusive than the law and legal reasoning.

Off the topic of my head, I cannot recite the long history of the Roman Catholic tradition of moral reasoning about formal and material cooperation with evil. However, I can tell you that the discussion involves Aristotle's ideas about form and matter -- that is, formal and material cooperation are used analogously with form and matter in constituting moral (or immoral) acts.

These are the kinds of distinctions that Roman Catholic priests who are going to hear confessions should study. Yes, ordinary Roman Catholics who try to live morally upright lives should also study Catholic moral reasoning to a certain extent.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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