The Personalist Project

Accessed on February 20, 2019 - 9:10:19

Does Freedom of Conscience not Matter if Obama pays? - AND Socrates’ Advice to Cardinal Dolan

Josef Seifert, Mar 11, 2012

Socrates’ Advice to Cardinal Dolan: it is better for man to suffer injustice than to commit it.

Many concerned citizens, Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Jews, Muslims, and even some atheists, have voiced their deep concern over the attack on the freedom of conscience and religion that we now suffer in the USA. Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, in his impressive letter of March 2, 2012, expressed his deep concern and shock, alluding even to the hard times which may expect the Catholic Church in view of the unbending and frontal attack on religious freedom by the Obama government. Also Pope Benedict has shown signs of deep alarm, saying to some US bishops during their ad limina visit: “Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.”

I wish in the following to comment on this dramatic event from a philosopher’s point of view, asking four questions:

  1. What in the present state of the health reform violates the two precious freedoms of conscience and religion?
  2. Why and how does it do so?
  3. Why is this unprecedented intrusion from a government bureau, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a terrible attack on human conscience and freedom of religion?
  4. What should we do in reaction to this assault on freedom of religion?

1. What in the present state of the health reform violates the precious freedoms of religion and conscience? Does freedom of conscience not matter if someone else pays?

The curtailing of religious freedom and freedom of conscience we presently witness consists in this: in forcing, or wanting to force, persons who listen to their conscience, including faithful members of major religious communities in the USA, to perform acts which they regard for excellent rational or well-founded religious reasons as intrinsically wrong, such as sterilization, distribution of contraceptives, abortions, or participation in any of these acts as providers, nurses, pharmacists, or assistants.

Therefore issuing mandates from HHS that as a matter of fact demand that countless persons, such as Catholics and Church institutions, act against their conscience and religion is a grave attack on these sacred rights. Such government control is not only contrary to the deepest political American values, it is opposed to the eternal value and dignity of each human person and to these fundamental human rights.

Upon being challenged by many persons and religious communities, President Obama made the announcement that the Churches could quiet down: instead of Church schools, hospitals, clinics, or vast networks of charitable outreach having to pay for these mandatory services to be offered in any hospital or clinic in the country including religious ones (at least if they are not being offered in the vicinity), the insurance providers will have to pay the bill. In other words, if your patients do not ask you to renounce your pay for your services or to pay the bill yourself, it is OK to commit what you consider murder or intrinsically bad for other reasons. Apart from possibly insurance providers also having consciences, President Obama astonishes any thinking person: To consider relieving the  individual or community from “paying the bill” an adequate “concession,” when you are demanding that they offer gravely immoral services, would be laughable if it were not incredibly tragic and sad to have as President of the most powerful nation on earth a man who seems to understand zero about ethics. For every schoolchild should understand that having other people pay for it in no way does away with the essential transgression of performing intrinsically evil acts.  Nor does it do away with the grave assault on freedom of religion and conscience when the state, in any direct or indirect way, seeks to force people to act against their conscience. As I mentioned in my previous posts, the US government and such agencies as Planned Parenthood have been violating consciences in other countries for a long time, but now they have begun a huge assault on the moral and religious freedom of their own citizens.

Shifting the burden of payment from religious institutions to insurance companies done absolutely nothing, nothing at all, to protect freedom of conscience and religion, once you force people and institutions to perform evil acts. The decisive issue is not who pays but who acts. Whether we pay ourselves the costs we incur for murdering an innocent man (like paying airplane tickets, a gun, etc.), or whether we do it because someone else paid us to be a hired assassinator does not change the decisive point: in both cases we commit murder which we never ought to do, regardless of who pays.

Therefore, if someone else, in this case the government or a state bureau, forces us to commit what we perceive to be murder or other evil acts, whether with our or their money, something far more terrible begins than just these acts themselves: not only do they or we freely commit an evil act, which is bad enough, but we are being forced to do so, whereby not only an evil attack on life and other goods is committed, but another vicious attack against freedom of religion and conscience is carried out.

2. Why and how do these acts violate freedom of religion? 

Now there many ways of forcing persons to commit evil acts with which they dissent.  It can be done in such a violent way that they do not commit these acts themselves at all, nor have any freedom to oppose them. This happens for example when state-appointed crews kidnap women, take them to a hospital, physically bind them on tables and sterilize them, force long-lasting or irreversible contraceptive injections on them, or abort their babies against their words, acts, weeping, and attempts of self-defense. Millions of babies are murdered this way today in many countries. This is no doubt a terrible intrusion on their lives and a terrible attack on their moral and religious freedom, because they are prevented from acting on their own as free agents and as persons. (If the United States truly defended human rights world-wide, they would have to draw drastic consequences of a commercial nature and decide on embargos and other measures against even the most powerful countries in which such actions are being done, as in China). In such actions, persons are treated like things.

In spite of its brutality, these attacks do not, however, per se violate the consciences of their victims.  They can be compared to the rapist’s attack on a woman who is a pure victim in the attack and whose conscience is not at stake, except perhaps in so far as she takes an inner attitude of evil but comprehensible hatred for her torturer, as over and against the glorious forgiveness of a famous Columbian doctor who had been raped in the most brutal way by members of a gang and years later met her main rapist and forgave him, over which he was so moved that he fell on his knees, wept and repented his crimes. From the point of view of free self-determination, the described actions are the most radical attack on human freedom and human rights because the person is deprived of any physical, and possibly even psychical power to resist, in matters which touch on the most profound level of her individual and family life.

But there are other, and in some respects even worse, attempts to force people or religious communities psychologically or economically to commit evil acts themselves against their conscience.  Consider, for example, the Nazi officials who threatened Germans who did not denounce Jews with deportation and death, or threatening persons with being fired from their jobs if they refuse, as nurse or doctor, or as mother or father, to comply with abortions. Here, unlike in a physically forced abortion, especially if we are only threatened with minor losses such as of money, we remain free to accept or to reject such pressure. Any hospital or individual who is expected to comply with these mandatory services is free and can and should reject such actions. But if the individual does so, he accepts damages for himself, his family, etc.  And if an institution such as a Catholic or Orthodox Jewish Hospital resists all such pressures and abides by just hospital policies, they are fined and lose important financial state benefits.

Of course a state can threaten us with many other measures: with cutting funds that result in many persons in need not receiving help; with jailing us, or even with killing us, if we do not comply.

But even in the face of the most cruel threats, we are free to resist, and even in the mildest forms, any such pressuring of persons into committing acts that contradict a person’s authentic conscience constitutes a grave assault on the freedoms of conscience and religion cherished quite especially in the USA.

There is a big difference between the government seeking people who freely offer to do the evil acts the government wants to have committed, and forcing others to commit these same evil actions against their conscience, for example by their exclusion from contracts just because they will not refer victims of human trafficking, immigrants and refugees, and the hungry of the world, for abortions, sterilization, or contraception.
US governments have since a long time pressured the consciences of other nations to commit evil acts by refusing them vital financial aid if they did not act against their consciences. Now they pressure their own people to commit such evil acts.

3. Why is this unprecedented intrusion from a government bureau, the department of health and human services (HHS), a terrible attack on human conscience and freedom of religion?

Religious freedom and the freedom of conscience, never to have to do what is intrinsically wrong, and even what is believed to be so for strong ethical or religious reasons by the subjective conscience of a person, is one of the most fundamental and sacred human rights of any person, in a sense the most important of all rights inasmuch it touches the supreme, moral and religious, values. Moreover, according to ancient philosophers such as Plato, and even more definitely according to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, any case in which persons give into such pressures and do in fact act against their consciences, committing grave moral sins, this violates not solely their earthly well-being by depriving them of an important freedom, but is linked to the peril of eternal damnation, such that not only the greatest temporal goods, but the eternal welfare of persons is in question when the right of religious freedom is taken away.

Thus for these two reasons, the state commits a grave crime of violation of basic human rights.

4. What should we do in reaction to this? Socrates' advice to Cardinal Dolan

There are many actions of a political and legal order that are already being planned and seek to obtain court or Supreme Court orders that declare these government decisions illegal. And no doubt those concerned should fight for this to happen. The United States also ought to be denounced for this suppression of freedom of conscience and religion in front of the UN and the The Hague Court of Human Rights, taking them to the verdict of international justice against the violation of fundamental human rights.

But what should the individual or religious community do as long as these regulations, orders, or laws are in force and no legal or political change occurs?

Now it is crucial to see that no one, in an absolute sense, even if threatened by death - as Katherine of Alexandria for not worshipping the Roman Emperor as an Idol and countless other martyrs - must commit these acts instead of bearing the adverse consequences of his or her refusal to comply. Also under pressure, a person remains free to comply or not, and therefore still commits a gravely immoral act regardless as to whether she was pressurized or not. Likewise, everyone is free to reject any act that he or she knows or believes to be sinful. Not only is everyone free to do so, but strictly speaking obliged to do so.

Therefore, when Cardinal Dolan considers various possibilities, or wants to discuss them in meetings, this is very useful and necessary with respect to the prudential political or legal measures that ought to be taken against this oppression of religious freedom, but it is quite unnecessary with respect to the ethical question. Socrates has given the answer centuries before Christ: it is better for man to suffer injustice than to commit it. In other words, it is a far lesser evil to suffer any injustice, including torture and death, than to commit injustice. What Socrates said, is equally valid today: every person is not only called but obliged to reject any such pressure and NOT to commit any evil and unjust act or collaborate with it, preferring any financial losses and even becoming a martyr to doing evil.  This is comparatively easy to see, when we do not risk our health and lives, but just lose government and tax money and can strive to receive the same or a more generous support from those who disapprove of such pressures to do evil. But it is very hard to see, and harder to do, in periods such as Nazi Germany, communist Russia, etc.

The fact, however, that pressures against religious freedom do not annihilate the freedom of conscientious objection or civil disobedience, in no way exculpates those who restrict or seek to remove the freedom of conscience and religion. For not only will many of us not have the strength to resist pressure, such that much more evil will be committed than is being committed already now in the health services, but open or subtle pressuring persons to act against their conscience is also itself an immense evil. If States start to deny freedom of conscience and religion, they even raise the earnest question whether we still live in a democratic country built on principles of justice.  For, as Augustine noted, a state that is NOT built on foundations of justice or tempts and forces people to do evil is no longer a real state, but an organized band of bandits.

No doubt, any individual and group, in such an unjust state, has to engage in civil disobedience and risk steep fines or even one’s life rather than to commit any injustice. At the same time, we are called to defend religious freedom, not just because it is our American legacy or tradition, but because it corresponds to the truth, a truth about human rights that holds true in the United States just as anywhere else in the world, and a truth that touches the most important matters and the highest goods of mankind.