At the excellent blog of Catholic law professors “Mirror of Justice,” Rick Garnett comments on my own recent criticism of leftist Catholic pundits who have declared, in virtual unison, that lay Catholic business women and men (and the Bishops acting on their behalf) have no legitimate claim for a conscience exemption from the Obamacare abortifacient mandate.
Rick correctly observes that when Catholics deny conscience rights against this mandate to other Catholics just because they are not part of a non-profit organization, the denial is inconsistent with Church teaching. The Second Vatican Council emphatically teaches that religious freedom is not the possession of only volunteers and priests, and that in fact “the Church” is the laity as they live their faith amidst society including if not primarily in the workplace, and the Church is not merely the corporal and spiritual works of mercy (or rather, mercy is to be exhibited in all aspects of life). Thus, those laity have a right to religious conscience too, especially in the workplace.
Rick always assumes the best in both sides of a debate, but sometimes it leads him to understate the error of someone he is criticizing. In this case it leads him to claim that Michael Sean Winters and his comrades who deny the existence of lay conscience in business have not actually denied it in principle. By claiming Winters did not even say this, when in fact he did, it prevents us from doing the necessary work of showing that Winters’ view is utterly incompatible with Church teaching on lay conscience.
Rick overlooks Winters’ extensive statements saying that he does not just pragmatically oppose the Bishops for defending lay business conscience, Winters in fact disagrees with it as a matter of Catholic theology and anthropology.
Winters candidly explains regarding lay business conscience, “I object to it on theological grounds” as coming from “libertarian temptations” and from “the Catholic neo-con project” that “sanction[s] a view of human autonomy that I cannot reconcile with Catholic anthropology,” “reducing Catholicism to a prop for Americanism”; thus he says “I reject that dualism and stand with the Communio school of theology in doing so.” That is a theological objection, not a pragmatic one. And it cannot be reconciled with Church teaching.
Winters further insisted that the idea of lay business conscience “reinforces the idea that religion is essentially a private matter, between one’s conscience and God,” and “that conscience and religion are essentially individualistic things” that reinforce “America’s highly anti-authoritarian and uber-individualistic culture.” Winters views the Bishops’ defense of lay consceince as one “that perceives conscience as solely an individual thing, untethered from tradition or from the Magisterium.” And Winters has repeated his view many times, even denying that EWTN has a claim to religious conscience because it is not sufficiently ecclesiastical in his narrow view of whose consciences “count.” Winters thinks religious conscience belongs only to magisterial entities and Catholic Worker houses.
Unfortunately for Winters, as I demonstrated in my last post, Winters and his kindred leftist Catholics cannot possibly reconcile their denial of lay Catholic conscience with Church teaching such as it is summarized in the specific quotes I drew out of the recent Justice and Peace document, which is simply a summary of Vatican II and the teaching of Blessed John Paul II. They cannot reconcile their view with that teaching, period. Winters, Schneck, and Commonweal ironically do not believe in the laity as the “People of God” at all, because to them, Catholics aren’t Catholics proper when they were in business–otherwise, they would have strong claims to religious conscience in that sphere.
In a related way, Rick himself toys with a similar error. With respect to religious conscience protection, he draws a distinction between religious institutions and commercial-business employers. But in the latter category are lay Catholics with well-formed consciences. When government coercion forces them to violate Catholic beliefs, the Catholic theological view prohibits us from denying those lay Catholics conscience protection (“exemptions from otherwise generally applicable laws”) simply because they are operating in the world associated with commerce. Put the other way, Catholic theology does not allow us to approve a violation of lay Catholic conscience in business simply because the law is generally applicable.
Rick seems to be incorrectly importing the legal concept of “general applicability” into the realm of Catholic theology on lay conscience, but in that realm it simply does not trump lay Catholic conscience. From my conversations with Rick, I think he is taking the fact that the instututional Church and its works of mercy have heightened autonomy from government, and illogically extrapolating from that fact the idea that lay Catholics in commerce must have conscience rights that are violat-able. Instead, all categories of Catholic work are immune from government violations of conscience–the fact that the magisterium itself has an even greater right to autonomy does not demonstrate that lay Catholic conscience rights are so low as to be legitimately trumped by government action.
Rick will respond that the question is entirely resolved by deciding the underlying injustice of the mandate. But that is not true either. In the pure abstract, Catholic theology still recognizes at least three tiers of autonomy: Church and nonprofit-Catholic autonomy, then distinctly lay Catholic conscience autonomy that is still above government violations, and then finally “secular” or in this case commercial autonomy based on such things as property rights.
Rick’s error is to apparently condense the second category into the third. That error, like Winters’ more virulent strain, is (I repeat) simply incompatible with Church teaching on the laity as the People of God, religious conscience protection, business ethical duties as well as rights, and the economic justice that flows from it.
Business ethics and economic justice are incomprehensible in a theology where lay Catholics have no conscience rights, because if you have no conscience freedom to act ethically, you can’t have a duty to act ethically either. Winters, Schenck, Commonweal and their fellow “experts” in the field of economic justice are betraying their entire espoused philosophy. Since they don’t believe that God is the Lord of business, they just believe that government is, or rather, government run by their own political party.