Do Lay Catholics in Business Have Conscience Rights?

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.


“Don’t worry, Godfather, our friends at Catholics in Alliance have ‘taken care of’ those Justice & Peace people in Roma who insist that you have a conscience to follow.”

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.

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11 thoughts on “Do Lay Catholics in Business Have Conscience Rights?

  1. Matthew Masotti says:

    Why can’t a Catholic conscience influence a business or consumer decision?

    Paraphrasing Saint Augustine’s statement, “An unjust law is no law at all.” (On Free Choice Of The Will, Book 1, § 5), cited by Martin Luther King (Letter from a Birmingham Jail):

    An unjust product or service is no product or service at all.

    One may conscientiously object to cooperating materially with unjustly engaged armed forces, policies of racism, sexism, environmental degradation, etc…so why not also with programs that promote or distribute products that one believes are wrong? What in the Constitution (or in the laws of nature) prevents Catholics (or anyone for that matter), who obtain a controlling interest in a company that manufactures guns, “Whites Only” signs, electric chairs, fur coats, petroleum distillates, or contraceptives, et cetera, from changing their business model and ending production of things they find objectionable?

    The ideals of a free market economy include one’s liberty to participate in the marketplace in accordance with one’s conscience-driven talents and needs, not just legal provisions about trade zones or trade unions.

    Full disclosure: Twice, as soon as other career opportunities arose, I was able to resign from major health insurance companies because they covered contraceptive drugs and procedures and actively referred enrollees to Planned Parenthood facilities.

  2. Brad says:

    So, liberals can follow conscience (personal preference) when it comes to Humane Vitae. However we can not follow our conscience (what does God want me to do) when it comes to the government and HHS. As we say in our family non sequitur (i.e where’s the logic?).

  3. Mermaz says:

    Under the US Constitution, individuals have religious freedom/conscience rights PERIOD. I’m so tired of this being framed as a Catholic Church issue. We are called to be Christians in every facet of our lives. Not just on Sundays or only if we work in a Catholic institution. All the time – every day.

  4. Ed Mechmann says:

    It is an odd irony to hear liberal Catholics so ardently preach about the need to conform one’s conscience to the Magisterium when it comes to economic matters, yet they are strangely silent about the need to do so on sexual matters.

    1. Matt Bowman says:

      That’s exactly right Ed, but the irony here is double: this IS an economic matter, whether lay Catholics in business have ethical rights and duties. Leftist Catholics say yes they do regarding the environment, but no they don’t if an unethical mandate comes from their party’s president in support of the sexual revolution. It’s not just Church teaching sometimes yes, sometimes no. For leftist Catholics it’s business ethics sometimes yes, sometimes no. Yet these same people claim to be champions of business ethics.

      1. Kate says:

        Matt-As the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice document is not binding to conscience, can you explain why its a problem that “leftist Catholics” accept and reject different sets of business ethics? If it’s non-binding, shouldn’t they be free to make those decisions?

        1. Matt Bowman says:

          Kate–good question. They are perfectly free, in a sense, to publicly declare they don’t believe in lay business conscience as summarized in the J&P document. The problems with them doing so are as follows: 1) Scnheck has already praised the document as being wonderful, but refuses to explain how he could possibly do so while at the same time denying that lay Catholics in business have conscience claims against government dictates that they facilitate intrinsic evils; 2) the leftist Catholic leaders we are talking about claim to be professional promoters of the very ideas of economic justice and business ethics that this document summarizes, and that are incompatible with their opposition to lay Catholic conscience in the face of the HHS Mandate; and 3) to the extent that the J&P document is a summary of Church teaching from Vatican II and John Paul II on the laity, conscience, and religious freedom, rejection of those principles does put them at odds with binding Church teaching. Bottom line is that Scnheck, Winters, Commonweal, and Catholics in Alliance would not be caught dead denying the J&P document as such; they want to claim they are champions of economic justice while at the same time they deny those exact principles of economic justice to defend their party’s president.

          1. Kate says:

            Hi Matt: Thank you for your response. I’m a bit confused about your third point. I remember reading on this site about a previous note from the Pontifical Council, “Towards Reforming The International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority.” Writer after writer on this site basically rejected the document, even though that document contains numerous teachings from Vatican II and John Paul II. I guess I fail to see the difference.

          2. Matt Bowman says:

            Kate the difference is simple in principle. It lies in the words “to the extent.” I leave it to you to apply it in either case.

          3. Kate says:

            Hi Matt-I went back and read some o the articles on the “Reforming” document tonight. I just don’t see any references of this “to the extent.” From Thomas Peters posting other writers who make a mockery of the document to the basic ridicule of “liberals” who welcomed the document, there was little discussion of how much the teachings really apply, based on Vatican II and JP II. I find this site’s treatment of these two cases to be kind of ridiculous…think about it: you all criticized “liberals” for accepting the previous document at face value, and now you criticize them for not accepting this document at face value.

          4. Matt Bowman says:

            Kate–you can talk to others about what they said. I said “to the extent that the J&P document [on business ethics] is a summary of Church teaching from Vatican II and John Paul II on the laity, conscience, and religious freedom, rejection of those principles does put them at odds with binding Church teaching.” Your most recent comment doesn’t affect that, so you have decided to talk about other folks. Have fun!

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