One of the commenters at Beth’s post on the HHS decision regarding contraception asks:

How consistent or heathy is it for a religion like Catholicism, which views persons and personhood differently from a secular American government, to expect to be an integral part of American society and to not be at odds with the government? To what extent should Catholics and the Catholic Church expect to pay no price at all for their outlook, which is quite different from that of secular government.

The commenter goes on to mention the Amish as a case of people who have “opted out” of certain kinds of government regulations; is health care, done secular-style, one of those points where Catholics need to opt out?

I think these are all good questions, deserving of their own post, and so I am writing here. I’m trying to think through this myself, so much of what I say may be redundant, but I want people to see how I’m thinking about this in my own arguments.

I will say, on one hand, I’m sympathetic to the idea that Catholicism is, well, to put it baldly, odd and weird especially when it is compared to purported contemporary secular values like those held by the United States government. And, I think further that Catholics can and should be prepared to be “out of step” with culture on occasion, or even often. Witnessing to our world about who Jesus is – the impossibly crazy fact of the God-man – is not something that is an easy fit for many and it may well be that our particular view of a person’s life and dignity “from natural birth to natural death” is too ill-fitting for us to accept the health care law and its sanctions.

My worry, however, is that to focus on the question of personhood as at odds with the government fails to take into account that in fact, Catholicism ALSO has a long-standing tradition of respect for and, often, collaboration with governments precisely because of its understanding of political authority as being part of God’s order. (Romans 12 and 13 come to mind on this, but so also does Ambrose’s call on the Emperor Theodosius to repent after he massacred people at Thessalonika; we could name many others – some great and others not-so-great or even evil – but the point remains that there is that tradition.) That understanding of political authority goes hand in hand with the understanding of what it means to be a person. It is hard to say that we humans are made in the image of God, with all the dignity that accords, and not also see that as related to the maintenance of human dignity via ordering human society in political and economic ways.

This long-standing concern with what the government does, of course, has bearing on the present question of health care. For one, Catholics have long, long been proponents of making sure that all people have good medical care, again out of concern for human dignity. If we wanted to see insurance coverage and health care change in this country, based on that concern, that needed collaboration, which the bishops and others provided. Now that the health care act has passed, and with provisions that are opposed to church teaching, what has happened is that the church finds itself facing a dilemma. It still has an interest in getting people adequate health care; it also has concerns about the long-term affects of using contraception on our understanding of peoples’ dignity.

At this juncture, it would seem that “opting out” in the sense of “doing our own thing” might be the way to go. In the relatively recent past, when the Catholic Church saw itself at odds with political authorities it did opt out: without getting into the finer points of the history here, the creation of Catholic schools and hospitals in the United States often have their roots in an understanding that Catholics did things differently. While they cared deeply about education and health care, as their Protestant or secular counterparts did, they also recognized they did it differently. Such hospitals and schools have a long history of being granted religious exemptions, and they often did quite well with that kind of development (and so did schools and hospitals related to other religious insitutions).

The thing is, in this case there is no option to “opt out” in that way because the HHS has effectively denied it by too narrowly construing the exemption clause. If Catholicism were only about what we do on Sunday mornings, it would make sense to say that the exemption clause should only apply to employers at houses of worship that only serve people within that tradition. But Catholics rarely, if ever “only” serve “co-religionists” even in their houses of worship. For example, my parish operates a soup kitchen that largely serves non-Catholics and non-Christians. It is currently running inquiry classes for more than forty people who are not Christian but wonder about becoming Catholic. Under the current exemption clause, it would seem possible that even my parish could not qualify for an exemption.

So the other way I see that Catholics could “opt out” would be to forego giving health care coverage at all, to all employees at Catholic-related institutions. But this option would deny Catholics the opportunity to do what they have done on a long-standing basis (that is, provide health care, in a variety of times, places and ways), since well before the United States became a nation. That is, it seems to deny Catholics the very freedom to practice their own religious tradition. It would seem further that the state here has taken the very problematic step of restricting “religion” to only what happens in houses of worship.

To see the problem in this kind of move, I wonder about a possible analogy in kosher and halal butchering, which is also a religious practice not done in the confines of houses of worship and which also has direct cousins in secular society. I could imagine a time when the United States might be concerned about butchering practices to the point that it would regulate meat-packing facilities much more tightly than it does so now (would that this were the case!) I could also see that in attempting to define new butchering practices, it might develop (perhaps based on new technology) an ideal butchering practice that was proven to be environmentally efficient. I could also see that those involved in kosher and halal practices might have a stake in encouraging the state to so regulate its meat. If, however, the state were to say that only its own butchering practices would be allowed (because it presumes such practices are newer and more scientific) and that kosher and halal practices would not because they would deny people the right to access to “healthy meat,” I think we could rightly say that the state has there “established” its own secular “religion”.

That most self-professing Jews do not routinely keep Kosher (for example) would be irrelevant to whether the state has the right to make that kind of rule, just as is the fact that most Catholics do not follow the Church’s teachings on contraception. Such questions are internal debates. (Of course, they are often influenced by secular politics – as we see in the fact that many Christian denominations now have statements saying they do not discriminate on the basis of race, class, gender and so on – but such statements do not have their basis in the long-standing traditions of those churches.)

My main point here is that religion cannot be merely “confined” to houses of worship – despite the best efforts of secular politicians (and here I hasten to say BOTH Republican AND Democrat – for example the case of immigration reform in Alabama). And this, too, is why the Catholic Church cannot simply “opt out”, either positively or negatively here. No, we’re stuck, good. And I think we’ve all got to figure out some good ways forward if we wish to preserve both the concern for health care and the concern for religious exemptions.