Social Justice is About Redemption, Not Mandating Contraception Coverage

Father Robert Sirico, founder and president of the Acton Institute, was the latest in the Distinguished Speakers Series here at Franciscan University recently (full video, video excerpts, and full audio available here). His talk could hardly have been more timely.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, Catholyc, who promulgated the offensive rules.

Rules promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services based on the authority granted them by Obamacare will require all new health insurance plans to cover contraception and sterilization. The religious exemption is so narrow that most religious institutions like schools, universities, hospitals, nursing homes, etc., run by Catholics or most any other religious institution will not qualify and will have to provide this abominable coverage, or stop providing coverage altogether.

Catholic leaders and institutions, including Houston archbishop Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, chairman of the bishops’ pro-life committee, various other bishops and archbishops, the Cardinal Newman Society, and just today Franciscan University, have officially and publicly stated their opposition to the new mandates.

Father Sirico’s talk, while not directly about Obamacare or any other specific policy, illuminated Catholic social teaching, exploring the roots, purpose, and principles, of Catholic social teaching, while addressing some of the common misconceptions.

One thing is clear: the manner in which Obamacare seeks to fix the very real problems with our healthcare and health insurance systems and practices do not square with Catholic social teaching. These most recent rules give an example of why.

About midway through he says,

The salient quote from the opening of this clip, for those of you who can’t do the Flash player:

A common error often assumes that concern for the economically weak and marginalized must somehow translate first into yet another government program. That assumption is wrong. And it flies in the face of another principle of Catholic social teaching, the principle of subsidiarity. With good reason, this is something that those on the Catholic left, or whatever remains of it these days, rarely mention or grapple with, because they know that it would raise many questions about the prudence of, for instance, many welfare programs that they support.

Or, perhaps, national health insurance mandates (let alone national single-payer healthcare).

He discusses a little earlier in the talk the problematic tendency by some to move “seamlessly” from absolute obligations, such as the obligation to assist the poor, to specific legislation and programs. Contra this tendency, he notes, Popes John XXIII (Mater et Magistra 238) and Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate 9) in encyclical letters, as well as the U.S. bishops in a pastoral letter (Economic Justice for All), explicitly state that on matters where there is a “contingent” or “prudential” means of pursuing social justice obligations, such a seamless move is illicit. People of good conscience can disagree about the specifics of the most appropriate means, but the principle of subsidiarity—that the most local and decentralized portion of society (starting with the family, not city council) that can deal with a problem ought to be the one to deal with it—cannot be set aside due to mere expediency or sloth.

He says,

The specifics of, say, any given year’s national budget, ought to reflect an accurate and economically well-informed way of proposing how to achieve the worthy goals of, for instance, tending to the vulnerable, creating a sense of prosperity in a society. It is not sufficient to merely state that one’s goals reflect a preferential option for the poor, especially when the legislation that is conjured up is in reality a demonstration of a preferential option for the state, for bureaucracy.

In other words, while it is an obligation for society to attend to the needs of the poor—just one among those obligations with contingent, prudential possible solutions—going first and reflexively to the coercive power of the federal or even state government for the solution is not consistent with Catholic social teaching. “Society” does not equal “government.”

This is not to say that those levels of government are never the appropriate entity to deal with an issue—common defense and regulation of interstate commerce are legitimate functions of a highly centralized level of government—but that instances like the new rules from HHS referenced above are only one example of the great danger of yielding too much power to too few people in the pursuit of ostensibly noble goals.

An important distinction which he explores, and one which some left-leaning Catholics try to ignore, is that between the portions of Catholic social teaching that oblige us to resist evil—e.g., the obligation to resist laws permitting abortion—and the portions that oblige us to pursue a good—e.g., the obligation to assist the poor and vulnerable. A Catholic can never support laws that permit evil, but Catholics can, in good conscience, disagree on the degree to which and the means by which the government assists the poor and vulnerable. So, for instance, it is unquestionably immoral to support laws that permit abortion or require health insurers to cover contraception and sterilization, but it is not immoral to oppose certain kinds of immigration reform, even when they are supported by good and holy archbishops (provided, of course, that the grounds for opposition are not themselves problematic. And on that matter, quite likely only the individual and God truly know the score).

The ultimate goal of Catholic social teaching, he points out, is the same as the goal of the Church overall: human redemption. We are to be formed by who we are in relation to God and to one another and to bring that realization into every facet of our lives, in this case into our political and social spheres. He references the Biblical image of the yeast in bread, that once it is kneaded into the dough it is indistinguishable and inseparable from the dough, but the effect of the yeast on the dough is to make it better: to make it rise. In the same way, once we are formed and informed by Catholic social teaching we are to work for the redemption of the world through prudent political and social decisions and activity.

By the way, you can still comment your prudential disapproval on the HHS regulations until September 30 here.



  • Bernadette

    Social justice is Socialism has has no place in the Catholic church or our country.

    • Tom Crowe

      Bernadette— Please educate yourself on the Church’s teaching on social justice. it is not the condemned “liberation theology,” as you seem to think. A great place to start is the 35 minute video of the full lecture by Father Sirico, available via links in the above post. Social justice is not socialism, and part of Father Sirico’s talk is pointing this out. Your life will be enriched by learning what Catholic social teaching really is.

  • bob

    The Church has, of course, abandoned the poor and thrown its lot in with the rich. That’s why it doesn’t criticize the rampant materialism of the wealthy in this country as they transfer more and more money from the middle class to the wealthy (the middle class has seen its real income go up 26% in 20 years while the wealthiest 1% have had a 500% increase). So the Church now obsesses over sex, contraception, genitalia, etc., while ignoring the fact their wealthy buddies have thrown the poor and the middle class under a bus. Nice job, guys. It’s one reason why the Church has collapsed in the US. If it wasn’t for immigrants, the US Catholic church would be a shadow of itself. It’s lost its message. Good riddance!

    • Tom Crowe

      bob— I think that’s an impolite way of saying you don’t have a clue.

    • Kmbold

      The Church would be a shadow of itself because the Church, in this case most bishops and priests, have most assuredly NOT concerned themselves over sex, contraception, genitalia(?), and abortion. After Roe v Wade they were SILENT! After the widespread use of the Pill they kept their mouths shut! With fornication rampant mum’s the word! You think immigrants are the salvation of the church? I saw “immigrants” bounding in and out of Planned Parenthood this entire day. They are no big prize for the church, except as sinners to be saved like the rest of us. I’ll tell you who is transferring money, and it’s from the haves to the have-less, and that is government in every form. And everybody is losing.


  • Ryan Bilodeau

    Fr. Sirico is spot on. Look no further than the letter written to Speaker Boehner by the Catholic professors decrying his budget proposals. Where were they, for example, on the abortion issue?

  • Joe M

    Thank you. Excellent points. I think we need more defense of the encyclicals such as Father Sirico’s talk. The left is constantly citing them out of context and ignoring teaching that contradicts with their political goals.

  • chrysd

    I would like to recommend a great book that I found for free on the Kindle – The Servile State by Hilaire Belloc. I am only halfway through, but already helping me to see things differently. Even more convinced that choosing between big government socialism or big business capitalism aren’t real choices. Been talking with my husband, academically, what would a faithful Catholic country look like- one that based upon Catholic principles look like.

    • Bill G.

      I just got it last month, and have read it twice. It was written almost 100 years ago, and is spookily accurate!

      Check out the American Chesterton Society for more of Belloc’s work, and the Distributist Review for more on the economic and social system that he, Chesterton and others advocated.

      Cheers !

      • Tom Crowe

        Of course, that version of capitalism that Belloc and Chesterton did not approve of would be objectionable. Happily capitalism without a system of morals guiding the economic agents is not what is advocated. In some cases the intervention of an authority, perhaps government, is necessary to restrain those who have not the moral fiber to dispose their economic activity well. But given a moral foundation for those buying and selling, capitalism is rather good.



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