If only our Bishops had thought to consult with David Gibson

How foolish our bishops were to not call upon David Gibson for a lesson in casuistry or hair-splitting!  He instructs the bishops it is no moral problem for Catholic institutions to pay for contraception, especially if done indirectly, because their payments would be only remote cooperation with evil. Gibson tells us that if the bishops had only mastered the material in Moral Theology 101, they would know that it is morally permissible to cooperate with evil remotely.

Gibson seems to have missed the class session in Moral Theology 101 where the application of the principles of the kinds of cooperation were fully explained.  He seems to be unaware that demonstrating that the degree of cooperation with evil is immediate or remote in no way settles an issue.  Certainly, it is always wrong to cooperate with evil formally and immediately.  But just because the cooperation with evil is remote does not mean that it is morally permissible or wise to cooperate in an evil action.

One’s unwillingness to cooperate remotely with evil may be influenced by several factors.  Those who are dedicated to fighting a certain evil may choose to refuse to cooperate in any way with that evil in order to give the strongest possible witness to the nature of the evil.  For instance, some people won’t buy a certain product because of the conditions in third world factories where the product is produced. The cooperation is fairly remote and the refusal to buy the product won’t have much effect on changing the poor working conditions. Still, some people want nothing to do with such exploitation and will even inconvenience themselves quite a bit to avoid it.

Some actions are so evil that if one can refuse to cooperate at all, one should.  People who think contraception to be a good thing, think that Church should have no problem funding contraception.  The Church, however, understands contraception to have very bad consequences and wants to dissuade people from doing bad things rather than facilitate them.  (Below I will mention some reasons for this belief.)

Keep in mind that the standard of concern for cooperating with evil is much different for an institution than for an individual. The Catholic Church exists to teach and give witness to important truths of the faith, among them moral truths.  Any systematic cooperation with what is wrong – especially when what is wrong is “intrinsically wrong” such as contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs — conflicts with the very purpose of the institution and should be avoided when possible.  This teaching is one of its key moral teachings.  In Evangelium Vitae John Paul II shows the connection between contraception, abortion, and assisted suicide.  Making the Catholic Church fund contraception and abortion-inducing drugs is like making the Anti-smoking League fund cigarettes (and do remember that at one time, people thought cigarettes posed no danger to health).  It is wrong to make an institution act in violation of the very principles for which exists.

The possibility of causing scandal has always been a major consideration in assessing the morality of cooperating with evil.  One Catholic food bank refused to accept food from Planned Parenthood (it referred them to other places that would accept the food). They would not have been wrong to accept the food; it would have been remote cooperation with evil but they didn’t want the possibility of people seeing their truck in the parking lot of Planned Parenthood and thinking they endorsed Planned Parenthood.  People do draw such conclusions.

If the Catholic Church cooperated with providing contraception great scandal would ensue.  Causing scandal is a kind of hypocrisy; one says one thing and does another.  Gibson wants the Church to be a hypocrite; indeed, we must acknowledge that many would mock the Church if it used the reasoning Gibson promotes in respect to almost any other issue.

If the bishops accept the ruse that Obama has offered and indirectly pay for contraception, the enemies of the Church will be oh so ready to claim that since the Church cooperates with payment for contraception it must approve of contraception. And we must admit, there would be a modicum of logic in their thinking.

Some of the bishops’ reasons for opposing payment for contraception, it seems, have never been pondered by Gibson. Gibson thinks there are some “greater goods” to be gained by cooperating with the funding of contraception, among them, the reduction of abortions. Suppose the Church thinks – for good reason – that more contraception leads to more abortions.  It is not at all difficult to establish a correlation with the rise of abortions and the acceptance of the pill in the sixties.  Nor is causation so hard to establish; contraception clearly enables women (and men) to engage in sex with no expectation of a pregnancy but when a pregnancy happens, they often have recourse to abortion.  The average real life failure rate of the pill is nearly 9%, of the condom 15%. Who would get in a car that in a “real-life” situation was susceptible to major failure 9% or 15% of the time?

Gibson also unreflectively accepts the simplistic claim that contraception will reduce medical costs. Really?  The Church considers contraception to be always wrong for many reasons, among them that it is an assault on a woman’s healthy fertility system.  The hidden costs of contraceptive practice are huge (increase incidence of breast cancer, strokes, migraines, depression, etc.).  And contraceptive lifestyles are tightly connected with increased welfare costs.  Contraceptives fail.  Often.  (The pill 9%; the condom 15%; please remember these figures). The vast majority of single women faced with unwed pregnancies who don’t get abortions become single parents. Single parenthood is certainly a major cause of poverty in this country.  Moreover, there is strong evidence that the contraceptive lifestyle that leads many people to have sex before marriage, to cohabit and also to commit adultery, is a major cause of divorce.  And divorce too is a major cause of poverty.

Contraception is not just some arcane matter; it truly is a social justice issue and contributes to more evil than many people can imagine.  People need to wake up and realize the profound damage done by contraception. (There are many good sources that document this; I recommend Lionel Tiger’s The Decline of Males, more true now than when it was written over a decade ago or Mary Eberstadt’s “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae”)

Why should Catholics or anyone else have to pay for nonmedical care that has terrible physical, relational, and social consequences? (Of course, some women may take the hormones in the “pill” for some physical conditions such as endometriosis but they are not thereby contracepting and Catholics would, of course, pay for such treatment.)

Obama’s mandate does not just promote something that Catholics think is intrinsically wrong. As the bishops and others note, it also violates the freedom of Catholics (and others) to act upon their religious beliefs and, indeed, forces them to act against their beliefs.  The fact that so many religious groups and institutions who do not object to the use of contraception have joined the bishops in their opposition to the mandate demonstrates that the key issue is religious liberty.  If the bishops and others went along with Obama’s mandate they would be cooperating with the evil of violating religious liberty.  The Catholic Church understands the right to religion to be the foremost right.  Again, it would be working against its own purposes to permit this violation of religious liberty.

This country was founded by people who left their homelands so they could practice their religion freely.  The bishops and others are willing to undertake a difficult battle and incur great expense to fight a violation of religious liberty – a fundamental right.  Obama is determined to put aside the constitutional right to religious liberty – a defining characteristic of this country — for the purpose of providing …… contraception.  That really is a petty and pathetic decision.

A small committee in the White House is imposing its views of the value of contraception on the whole nation.  We all are expected to pay for what some social engineers dream up.  This is not democracy at work.

Why isn’t Gibson noting how ridiculous it is that the only free service to be supplied by health insurance is contraception!  Moral Theology 101 should cover the fundamentals of social justice.  Free provision of contraception — something most women can afford and something that does nothing to address health issues — is a very poor way to allocate scarce resources.  No preferential option for the poor here – every woman will get free contraceptives even those in the top 1%! How silly is that?  Why not provide services for free that the poor truly need? The poor might want free checkups, free insulin, free antibiotics, free chemotherapy, and free infertility treatments — all of which directly serve life.

Not only does Obama’s mandate fail to provide services people really need, it also will lead to invaluable services being denied to the poor and needy. The Church may decide it needs to suspend some of its services rather than cooperate with paying for contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs (and who knows what is next, assisted suicide?).  Already governments have forbidden Catholics to act in accord with fundamental beliefs.  Because of the decisions of a small committee in the Obama administration, Catholic agencies, for instance, no longer receive government funding to help rescue women from sexual trafficking.  Now Obama’s policies will threaten the great good that Catholics do in providing a great deal of the free health care that goes to the indigent.  These are direct evils associated with Obama’s obsession with contraception.  Obama is the one who will be responsible for Catholic institutions either closing or confining their services to Catholics only.

I invite Mr Gibson to school Obama on the wrongness of undercutting the effectiveness of institutions that provide tremendously needed social services, just because his beliefs do not accord with theirs.

Professor Janet E. Smith is the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. Over 2 million copies of Smith’s CD Contraception: Why Not have been distributed and is available at janetesmith.org.



  • Danny

    Can we all agree that one of our innate natural propensities is to preserve life? Life is a good I would assume since we all wish for it, enjoy it, and fear its end. And if this is the case then can we say that any form of prevention of life goes against our very nature? In fact does it not seem that it is contrary to what we experience in nature as a whole? If life prevented itself would it not cease to exist? But if life desires for longevity and continuity then altering this in any way would seem disharmonious and destructive. This is not a matter of religion, or politics but what it means just to be a human.

  • Michael

    May I ask a question? I’ve been following this for awhile. Since 200 many individual states have mandated that contraception be included in insurance used by employers, with churches being exempt but not umbrella organizations, like Catholic hospitals or Universities. Iowa and Massachussetts both come to mind.

    My question is why all the outrage now? Catholic dioceses have been cooperating with these state mandates for some time now. Where was the outrage then? Isn’t it just as bad when states do this (which they have for some time now) as when the federal government does it (which is still pending and isn’t actually on the books yet)?

    • Suzanne

      I think yes, it’s terrible, and we all should have fought much harder much earlier. But better late than never!

  • berniethomas

    Prof Smith did not say all indirect payments are immoral. Just that some people, some institutions, for some very good reasons, at some very good times, may decide that for their purposes, indirect payments would be immoral or unwise.

    • Karen

      But how far does this go? It is against my religious beliefs to allow slavery; it’s common knowledge that slave labor is used in Florida to pick tomatoes (Google slave labor Florida prosecution if you need proof). School cafeterias frequently serve tomato and tomato-based products; therefore, I should not have to pay property tax to support the schools’ indirect support of slavery. Does the government have the power to force me to pay my property tax?

      • Suzanne

        That’s a great question, Karen. Now you are talking about civil disobedience. If you feel strongly about the issue of slave labor in Florida and you want to act on that (which I would commend you for!) then yes, you can refuse to pay your taxes. You can boycott tomatoes, hold signs in front of Florida schools and even chain yourself to the school cafeteria counter to raise awareness. That’s what the freedom we cherish in America is all about.

        I have more than once considered refusing to pay my taxes because tax $ is used to support foreign wars I don’t support, Planned Parenthood, population control worldwide, etc. Perhaps if we had all refused to pay our taxes years ago, we would have secured a better and more just situation for today.

        The Catholic Church is drawing a line in the sand regarding religious freedom. I don’t think the Church should be criticized for drawing the line where it has now, on the basis that it didn’t draw it somewhere else, earlier.

      • Kevin

        Surely we can see the difference between a person or agency breaking the law (e.g. using slave labor to pick tomatoes) or and the government creating a mandate which violates the principles upon which all of the laws of the country are rooted.

  • Cris

    I see Hank is trolling again … the cost of an insurance policy is largely driven by what the policy covers – so if abortion is not included then you are not charged “a share” of that coverage. Your strenuous reaches to criticize the bishops are getting tiresome.

    • Hank

      Yes, I’m trolling. If by that you mean I’m contributing comments. I guess if you don’t agree with the perspective of this site, it makes you a troll. Sorry for discussing. Anyways, the cost of insured services is a direct cost…like you just referenced. Obviously there are indirect costs with anything insurance related. My payments do not pay exclusively for care, but they pay for salaries, facilities, etc. Would you say that Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Chicago skyscraper is a direct cost charged to the insured? If you do, you have strange definitions of direct and indirect cost, because there would be no indirect costs. Anyways, I’ll shut up now since disagreement is not permitted.

    • Jason

      So you would agree then that Rick Santorum’s contraception-covering insurance from 2001-2007 was a grave moral evil. After all, the cost of an insurance policy is driven by what the policy covers – so if contraception is included, you are charged a share of that coverage.

      • Dr. Karen O’Mara

        To all commenters above: Complicance with a LEGAL requirement (HHS mandate) through participation in payment of premiums is NOT a moral but a legal question: does it infrige upon religious librty?
        The moral question resides with Catholic employers and all Catholics recogizing that all citizens must unite to demand that ALL reproductive choices be available to women without economic prejudice, that is–mandate that maternity benefits, infertility treatment and adoption services are ALSO covered by insurers. The moral choices would then accessible without bias and there is no threat to religious liberty to effect that choice.

        • Mark

          Hell, why not free watches, free cars and free cruises? Oh wait, because the concept of insurance is the based upon odds the same as the concept of gambling. Insurers bet that the money they take in as premiums will exceed the number of claims made, because of the likelihood that an insurable event will not happen on average. Once you start providing “insurance” coverage for things that are intentionally chosen or certain to happen through human cause and effect, things that are voluntary “treatments” and lifestyle choices, it stops being insurance and becomes mere cost-shifting of direct payments.

  • Hank

    If indirect payments are immoral, you’d have to agree that the entire concept of owning insurance is immoral. Ownership of insurance is in an indirect payment to support activities of the insurance companies–abortion, contraception. Similarly, Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan, endorsed by the bishops, must be wrong. Taxpayer vouchers to insurance companies surely are indirect support for insurance company activities. I guess the bishops’ message is a bit more murky than you make it out to be.

    • Suzanne

      I think Dr. Smith meant indirect financial support of moral evil – not just any indirect payment. Most Catholic institutions are self-insuring, so that nobody within the group of insured is receiving reimbursement for morally objectionable things like abortion or contraception.

      I’ll agree with you however that the Catholic bishops’ message has been murky. I personally am happy that for once the bishops are speaking out boldly, with one voice, and *correctly* in response to this outrage. Perhaps if they – and the average Catholic in the pew!!!! – had held the line more firmly in the past and spoken out more clearly, things would not have come to this pass.

  • Dr Mike Berry

    An excellent post Dr Smith, please keep writing and teaching. Moral Theology is timeless truth and needs to be put front and center of this issue.



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