The Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood case has certainly been the cause of much controversy. This is natural, and to be expected, since it touches upon so many key issues in the so-called “culture war”, and it was both a hotly contested and much anticipated decision.
But much of the reaction to the Court’s decision has been, well, a bit unhinged. Some have claimed that the Court was casting women back into virtual slavery. One legal commentator for a major newspaper stated openly — and bizarrely — that the reason for the Court’s majority ruling was simply that they lacked a uterus. Right.
Why all the hysteria?
I think much of it is a result of the nature of the controversy itself — one that goes to the heart of conflicting visions of who we are.
One of the key issues underlying this case is the role of women in society, and how that is to be assured. Everyone agrees that women should be a full and equal participants in society, free from unfair treatment. But we are in a pluralistic society, and there are many views on how that is to be accomplished, which necessarily involves differing views on the questions of fertility, sexuality, human life.
Many women and couples consider controlling their fertility to be a core value, and have organized their lives around it. They believe that easy, low-cost access to contraceptives is essential to their lives. They view anything that works against that value, and, indeed, anything that casts doubts upon it or appears to disagree with it, as a direct attack on their self-definition and identity.
We disagree with that value. But, in our pluralistic society, it is a reality that we must recognize. The fact is that those views have a place at the table in the public discussion.
But pluralism is a two-way street. As Catholics, we have a different view of sexuality, fertility, and human life. Our values are based on our faith, reason, and a particular understanding of the nature of the human person. We believe that fertility is a gift, not an “unwanted physical condition”. It’s a blessing given to us by God, inherent in human nature as male and female, and not a curse. To deny this is to deny an essential part of who we are, and to set us at war with ourselves. As a result, we believe that the “contraceptive mentality” is bad for individuals, relationships, and society. We are convinced (largely from our own failings and hard-earned experience) that the virtue of chastity is a beautiful, beneficial way for people to live and love.
We also believe in the sanctity of human life, from the first moment of conception. It is a scientific fact, not a matter of religious belief, that at the moment of conception a new, individual, unrepeatable human being comes into existence. We also believe, based both on faith and reason, that it is a grave injustice to deliberately end the life of any innocent human being, and is a sad failure in our duty to love one another.
We have also organized our lives around these values, which are central to our religious faith. It’s not just something that we do on Sunday morning, or in the privacy of our homes. It’s essential to our self-worth and identity, and it affects all aspects of our lives.
We understand that many people disagree with us — just as we disagree with them. But, again, in our pluralistic society, it is a reality that others must recognize. The fact is that our views have a place at the table in the public discussion. In the end, people should certainly be free to make their own decisions about fertility and sexuality and the meaning of their lives – but so should religious people.
The American way is to guarantee the freedom, equality and autonomy of everyone, including religious people, to live lives of integrity, in keeping with their core values. We have long recognized that. Our laws are full of religious accommodations, like the exemption from the draft for Quakers, and the freedom from saying the Pledge of Allegiance for Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is a matter of basic respect, civility, and just plain good manners.
The bottom line is that there is a serious conflict of values going on here, one that is difficult, if not impossible, to resolve definitively. There’s no easy answer, no magic bullet, that will solve all the disputes and make everyone happy. And “winner take all” is a terrible way to conduct politics — some people will triumph, but it also means that many of our neighbors will be “losers”. That’s no way to have a healthy community.
People naturally respond emotionally, even hysterically, when they’re scared that their way of life and values are threatened. Even though we won this particular case, we’re scared too — our religious freedom is very fragile right now.
So maybe it would be a good idea to turn the volume down a bit, recognize the raw feelings on all sides, and try to find a way that we can preserve as much as possible of everyone’s values, while preserving a sense of unity, solidarity, and mutual love.