A subtle point about the War on Conscience seems to me both important and neglected: Compelling a person to act against his conscience is worse than preventing someone from acting on his conscience.
At first glance that may seem like the worst kind of hair-splitting, but I think examples illustrate both the truth and the importance of this distinction.
For instance, I believe I have a duty in conscience to speak out against abortion, and I have acted on that conviction in places ranging from newspapers to street corners to private conversations. Limiting my ability to do that in most cases would be gravely wrong.
But suppose instead of preventing me from acting on my conscience the law compelled me to act against it. Suppose instead of merely barring me from voicing my convictions in a newspaper the law attempted to force me to contradict them, to write a column defending legal abortion against all I believe to be good and just.
Wouldn’t that obviously be the more invasive and tyrannical thing, and a much more fundamental violation of my dignity as a person?
Let me put it this way. If a law tried to prevent me from speaking against abortion, I would consider civil disobedience and perhaps even be obliged to it. But if a law attempted to compel me to speak in favor of abortion, I pray God would give me the courage to resist to the death. It simply admits no compromise. Better death than sin and hell.
Note well: I would no more want this done to someone who holds the opposing view — one I consider gravely evil — than I would want it done to me.
You may think my example extreme, but real life is more so: There have been active attempts to compel medical workers not merely to speak in favor of abortion but to actually perform them.
The principle here is rooted in a moral truth. The moral life has negative commandments (think of the “thou shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments) and positive commandments (think of “feed the poor” and “speak out against injustice”). Both bind us, but as St. John Paul II taught in his great encyclical on moral theology, and for clear reasons, they do so somewhat differently.
“[T]he negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid,” he wrote. “They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance.” In other words, it’s never right to do what I know to be morally wrong.
The positive precepts don’t oblige in that “always and in every circumstance” way, not because they are less important but because while there is a minimum, they have no “upper limit,” and because we have to make choices about how to apply them in different circumstances. In other words, at literally any moment of any day there are almost an infinite number of good acts I could be doing, and many different ways of doing them, so I have to choose.
St. John Paul II concluded: “Finally, it is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil.”
There are complicated questions that require deeper examination. Some would abuse these principles with convictions (racist ones, for instance) that are morally evil. Some might abuse them as a convenient excuse to shirk some obligation. And how do these things apply to corporations? And what about taxes? Don’t we all pay taxes that end up funding things that are morally wrong?
But even without resolving these questions, we can see with certainty the wisdom, the prudence given our plurality, and indeed the moral imperative of government striving to avoid such controversies in the first place. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the case of compelling someone to act against his conscience.
Instead we see the opposite. Government has repeatedly gone out of its way to provoke these situations, on the most trivial of pretexts.
The Hobby Lobby decision is a case in point. Even if one accepts the utilitarian argument that good enough ends justify the evil means of coercing a business owner to do evil, what is this great public good here? The notion that contraception, qua contraception, is “preventive health care” is laughable. Fertility is not a disease.
But even accepting that absurd proposition for the sake of argument, was there a widespread lack of access to contraceptives in 2010, prior to passage of the Affordable Care Act? If so, did it truly constitute a grave public health crisis? If it did, was this the least coercive means of addressing it?
Obviously the answer to each question is “no,” and even a single “no” among them refutes the notion of a compelling need for the attack on conscience.
Both Catholic teaching and the classical liberalism baked into the founding of United States, whatever their points of tension, have placed a high value on conscience and on the notion that there is a law higher and more binding than a government’s “because I said so.”
Perhaps no one puts the point so eloquently as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” justified his civil disobedience by citing St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas to argue that an unjust law — one, he says, that contradicts the natural and divine law — is no law at all.
The War on Conscience is a war of choice. It is increasingly hard to escape the conclusion that its intent is to forcibly “convert” those of us who dissent from the government’s adopted moral views on human sexuality, marriage and the dignity of the human person. We could even say that militant secularism is now our de facto state religion, and a singularly intolerant and coercive one at that, masking itself in a disguise of “neutrality.”
That ought to scare the daylights out of everyone who values conscience, even those who disagree vehemently with the Catholic Church on these issues.
Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.