Continuing the conversation with Michael Sean Winters

Will Norfolk come with us?

Michael Sean Winters has posted a thoughtful, if occasionally pointed, response to my challenge that he stand by his initial, praiseworthy opposition to President Obama’s anti-religious HHS mandate. I thank him for his response and offer the following two points in reply.

First, Mr. Winters says he continues to maintain, as he did before the president’s press-conference “compromise,” that the offensive HHS Mandate finalized “without change” on February 10 needs to be corrected in final form before the election. That is a helpful clarification, and I hope other Catholics on the left will join in his insistence on this point.

The second matter goes to the merits of the “compromise,” about which much as been said, but regarding which Mr. Winters’ comments advance the conversation significantly. Winters confesses that he does indeed reject the time-honored protection of broad “religious or moral” conscience championed by luminaries such as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Senator Ted Kennedy (and now Senators Casey, Nelson and Manchin), which has restrained the last half century’s cultural revolution from being used in federal health policy to violate Americans’ consciences. This is a significant departure on Mr. Winters’ part, both as a Catholic and as a man of the left, and it should not be undertaken without great circumspect.

Mr. Winters departs from what was up until recently a unanimous and bipartisan provision of generous relgious freedom, on the grounds that he considers it individualistic, because it “perceives conscience as solely an individual thing, untethered from tradition or from the Magisterium.”

If I correctly interpret this view, he is content with the President’s “compromise” (such as it vaguely may become) because it allows important Catholic projects (non-profit ones in “Communio” with the Church) to engage in practices consistent with Catholic moral theology. But according to Mr. Winters, the Bishops are veering into individualism by insisting on “religious or moral” protection beyond those limits. The federal government can violate consciences outside these bounds, and the Bishops should not demand otherwise.

What is wrong with this view, from the Catholic perspective? Three things. First, Winters is certainly correct that conscience is not in its true form “untethered from tradition.” But the present fight illustrates that Mr. Winters is restricting conscience much smaller than even tradition. Although he, Sr. Keehan, David Gibson and the like believe that the Catholic theology of moral cooperation permits an employer to provide a federally-mandated plan, which alone is an employee’s key to obtaining objectionable coverage from no one but the insurer the employer is paying, there is one fact Mr. Winters overlooks: other Catholics disagree. Those disagreeing include significant people Mr. Winters respects greatly (among others he does not respect, to be sure, but that is his loss), including, only for exemplary purposes, Cardinal Dolan (among most diocesan ordinaries) and Professor Rick Garnett.

My point is a simple one: some Catholics look at the theology of moral cooperation and view this employer-plan to be a direct facilitation of objectionable coverage. Therefore Mr. Winters is imposing, not the general principle that federal policy need only respect “right” Catholic consciences, but that it need only respect Winters’ interpretation of Catholic theology, and beyond that can violate even the conscience of the ordinaries of dioceses and consciences formed according to other respected Catholic thinkers.

If Rick Garnett ran a Catholic Charities, Mr. Winters is presently, right now, telling him that he has no right to demand that the federal government not force him to violate his conscientious view that the president’s “compromise” plan still requires him to directly facilitate objectionable coverage. Winters is demanding that Garnett’s conscience, and the conscience of all bishops and Catholics (and other Christians who disagree), conform to Winters’ conscience or be penalized by a federal mandate.

This is, to say the least, an ironic view from someone claiming the mantle of Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. Mr. Winters exceeds plausibility by arguing that it is a “due limit” when the government violates the reasoned theological conclusion of most Catholic ordinaries and many scholars, if they stray from the contrary theological view of liberal Catholic friends of one political party.

If Mr. Winters really believed in government policy protecting only rightly-formed Catholic consciences tethered to tradition, he would at minimum call for broadening the Mandate to allow total exemptions for any Catholic entity whose moral objection has the imprimatur of his diocesan bishop. Of course, to even phrase the policy that way illustrates the fatal flaw in Mr. Winters’ opposition to religious freedom in our nation: the president’s proposed “compromise,” at its best, forces everyone to adopt the consceince not merely of Catholics, but of liberal Jesuits, or else be subject to federal mandates. Such a policy cannot be preferable to the time-honored view of Senators Moynihan and Kennedy and the USCCB. “Religious or moral” conscience protection is the established American way to protect rightly formed Catholic conscience, and Mr. Winters has no Catholic basis to say that an acceptable alternative is to encode Sr. Keehan’s moral view into the federal register.

The second Catholic error in Mr. Winters’ view similarly relates to his selective application of Vatican II. Mr. Winters insists that the Bishops are wrong to ask for conscience protection beyond religious non-profits to any religious or moral objection, even if by a person or entity operating for-profit. The Second Vatican Council, however, emphasized that the Church is the People of God. Laity are not operating as individualistic atoms whenever they are not volunteering at a soup kitchen. Their life and work within the community, including their generous provision of healthcare and family wages for their employees, is “the Church” active in society, not an extracurricular activity.

But Mr. Winters insists that if Rick Garnett ran a construction company (Rick, you’re welcome for all these job promotions I’m giving you) Mr. Winters would deprive him of any right to object to the federal government forcing him to provide coverage of objectionable items, merely because he is contributing to his community in business. Construction Rick would not even have a right to engage in the kabuki dance that pretends the insurer rather than himself is providing the coverage. He gets no allowance for conscience at all under Winters’ view.

Winters’ attitude against conscience protection beyond non-profits is not an expression of “Communio”–it is a choking of Communio to exclude Christ’s work in the lay faithful. His view is simply incompatible with the Church’s view of Christ living in society through the laity, and is instead a form of clericalism–assuming that Christians are only really being Christians when they are in Church or volunteering in close proximity to it. The Gospels show Jesus reaching out to the poor, yes, but also to the businessman and the centurian. Salvation comes to their houses when they live virtue in their professions.

Ironically, men of the left like Winters castigate the capitalist right for its laissez faire attitude towards ethics in business, and lambast Wall Street for its ethical corruption. But Mr. Winters leaves no room for “Construction Rick” to practice his business according to well-formed Catholic ethics. Mr. Winter’s constricted view of business ethics is a fundamental rejection of Vatican II, and really of the universal Lordship of Christ.

The third Catholic problem with Mr. Winters’ acceptance of the president’s imaginary compromise is one that Winters himself points out, but does not sufficiently apply. Even on its own terms, the “compromise” will maintain the three-tiered caste system of “religiousity.” “Really religious” entities will be churches and religious orders that only have insular functions, leaving them to navel-gaze outside the objectionable coverage mandate. “Sort-of-but-not-really-religious” groups like non-profits will have to submit to the president’s shell game and pretend that their compelled, paid plan necessary for the objectionable coverage isn’t really providing the coverage. And daily-Mass going lector and permanent deacon “Construction Rick” (more promotions for you, Rick) has no religious conscience at all in the eyes of the federal government (or of Mr. Winters). All of this will remain in the president’s compromise, by the president’s own promise. If and when it happens, Mr. Winters will accept it, however grudgingly. That is not a tolerable Catholic position towards federal religious freedom policy.

There are plenty of other, contextual historical reasons why American Catholics cannot accept Mr. Winter’s fence-sitting view, including several I alluded to, and the fact that the whole scheme violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and is illegal. Also, PPACA gives the president no power to mandate that insurers cover items anyway–it only allows mandates within the existing plan–so that necessarily means the compromise will be meaningless because the coverage comes through that plan, or the compromise itself will be lawless in mandating a different plan. The rule of law is a Catholic principle, too.

In sum, three fundamental issues preclude Mr. Winters’ view within Catholic thinking: he is punishing other Catholics and Christians because they disagree with his conscience; he is punishing Cathoics for trying to contribute to society through ethical business practices; and he is accepting a religious caste system never before imposed by the federal government.

Mr. Winters is fond of citing Robert Bolt’s Sir Thomas More for his example of someone trying very hard to find a way to accept the King’s unjust mandate. But More also did something that Winters has not yet been willing to do: he respected the conscience of the Duke of Norfolk to disagree with More’s conclusion and sign the oath. President Obama’s mandate, in contrast, forces everyone to conform their conscience to Winters’ casuist sympathies.

To Catholics and Christians who take a different moral view than Winters on President Obama’s insurer-coverage fiction, he and the Catholic left plead, “Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!” “And when we die,” says More, “and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”

Will you, Mr. Winters, for “Communio”?



13 thoughts on “Continuing the conversation with Michael Sean Winters

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  2. Nancy D. says:

    Matt, you forgot to mention if Rick ran an Insurance Company,( as a Man For All Seasons rather than a jack of all trades) it would be a violation of Religious Liberty to force Rick and his company to provide contraception coverage if providing contraception coverage violated Rick and his company’s Religious or moral principles.

  3. Craig says:

    A great, although highly cerebral presentation of a debate that I feel is necessary and good. Not that cerebal and great are mutually exclusive. Indeed they are not, but I doubt that the “meat” present in your writing style will be sufficient for the sugar addict of today’s attention-deficient readers.

    I thank you and applaud your consistent use of good grammar, without which, such reading would be dreadfully tiresome. It may be a style preference, but I have often encountered -and found helpful- in other ‘BloggerA-responds-to-BloggerB’ type blog posts, an inclusion of relevant excerpts of the document to which you are responding. I believe it can be done without the loss of fluidity, and have come to appreciate such efforts as an expression of hospitality toward the reader. It is not a necessity, but it may help ease the grammatical burden of marathon sentences expended in reference to the source document while at the same time making a point of your own (which can ultimately prove the make-or-break factor in keeping the attention of those precious eyes for whom you are writing). Just a thought, but you may try it next time and see if you experience an ease in writing and perhaps even increased numbers of commentary/views (though of course that cannot be the stick with which we measure…for just one soul’s improved understanding of this or that topic of Catholic life could bring about – or at least serve to anchor – his salvation).

    All of that said, I would include one tiny criticism pertaining to the second way in which Mr. Winters errs. Ultimately I feel you succeed in addressing that matter, though perhaps not in as illuminating a way as I would like to have heard it/read it. That is to say, you unravel Mr. Winters’ objection on the grounds of individualism on the part of the USCCB, but you do so in such a manner that it is possible for the reader to both see that Mr. Winters’ point has been refuted, but also remain blind to the methodology which he has employed to make his argument in the first place. Namely, Mr Winters (whether with intentful malice/cunning, or else by unfortunate blindness, we can not know) employs the old tactic of the enemy to manipulate the Catholic Church’s own teachings against a particular phenomenon/philosophy and use said position of The Church to make his own point. In this case, he erroneously removes a word, individualism, from the framework in which it has always been understood (in light of its contrariness to the common good); flips it around; and then applies it to an argument very much antithetical to the Church’s teachings. The Father of Lies uses seemingly innumerable strategies to obfuscate the Truth and to diminish to clarity of the Church’s teachings, but this one in particular I find loathsome, for it undermines the very basis of communication: a consensus agreement on the definition of words.

    It is a minor tic, in an overall good article. Perhaps in the future you will find it agreeable to include a brief explanation of the functional aspect of the method by which an individual misleads others (if you perceive it).

    Grace and Peace of Our Lord as you continue to write,

    Craig J.

  4. BethAnn says:

    So where does it stop? Let’s say Construction Rick is against mandatory vaccines–a vocal number of Americans are. Can Construction Rick stop providing vaccines to children? Doesn’t the federal government have a demonstrated standard to provide for children through numerous Supreme Court cases?

    1. Matt Bowman says:

      Again BethAnn, see my comments to the last post. The Blunt bill limits nothing but Obamacare. So either your hypothetical is already illegal, in which case it is no basis for opposing Blunt because Blunt doesn’t affect those laws, or it is already legal, in which case it is no basis for bringing it up now to oppose Blunt when that’s not Blunt’s fault. These hypotheticals are not possibly justifiable grounds for saying Obamacare’s mandates shall not violate religious or moral conscience. Our society has already been living under a de facto Blunt amendment until August 1, 2012 by virtue of the fact that the Obamacare’s mandates have never existed before, so those mandates by definition never forced anyone to violate religious or moral conscience.

      1. Brett says:

        Matt, don’t hide from Beth Ann’s argument. The Blunt bill is so broadly written that it opens itself up to all sorts of moral fragmentation. Conscience protection will necessarily butt up against questions of the public interest, and a law protecting “every man for himself” religious beliefs might be dangerous.

        These are very complicated issues, and Winters realizes that. (I’m not saying you don’t.) Serious Catholics of good will disagree, and it’s certainly not obvious that your arguments are stronger.

        My hunch is that a better legislative strategy (I used to work in Congress) would be to repeal the contraception/sterilization/abortifacient components of mandated coverage. But the fix may have to come from the courts.

        1. Matt Bowman says:

          Brett I don’t understand your objection, but I answered BethAnn and you directly: opposition to Blunt/Fortenberry on the idea of hypothetical “fragmentation” is completely unfounded from anyone of good will, because our entire nation has in effect lived under Blunt/Fortenberry for every day the nation has existed, and up until August 1 2012, due to the fact that all Blunt does is restrain the new power in Obamacare which has never been implemented (and therefore we’ve always had the freedom not to comply with it for any reason, not just reasons of conscience). I am not sure if you understand this. We are either, this minute, “every man for himself” or we are not. If we are not, Blunt changes nothing about that, so no rational opposition to it can be brought on that basis. If we are “every man for himself” today, complaining about that fact cannot be rational grounds for opposing Blunt, because Blunt isn’t creating the “problem” (it isn’t law yet), instead that is how we have always have lived, civilization has not collapsed as a result, and as I explained in my last post, Senator Moynihan, Senator Kennedy, and unanimous bipartisan congresses have used this very language in past bills that still exist as law today and protect “religious or moral” conscience. So no, Catholics of good will cannot oppose restraining the Obamacare leviathan with the same conscience protections that have been overwhelmingly endorsed for the last 40 years, and under which the sky has not fallen. As far as the “fix” coming from the courts, that is an odd argument in this context. If it comes, it will be because the President has violated religious conscience as broad or broader than what Blunt would simply impose by statute. You cannot say that Catholics may oppose fixing an illegal law legislatively, prefering to roll the dice in courts to get possibly the same outcome. As far as repealing the contraceptive/sterilization/abortifacient components of the law, there are three problems with that: 1) Winters hates that strategy even more (it is in fact what the Bishops called for) because it directly attacks birth control, and the 3 Democrats voting for Blunt would have definitely opposed that as would some Republicans; 2) Obamacare the statute doesn’t include that mandate specifically or else it would never have passed, so you can’t take it out of the statute; 3) this is the first of dozens if not hundreds of HHS mandates about controversial medical ethics issues, so even if your fix was viable we would have to pass fixes over and over and over again. The bottom line is it is not rational for a Catholic to say I oppose religious and moral conscience protection because it is better repeal the contraception mandate instead. You might as well say it is better to repeal Obamacare instead, which has a better chance of happening than a contraception mandate repeal. But of course that doesn’t help us with Catholics on the left, which is where this discussion started.

          1. BethAnn says:

            Uh, Matt…as the Affordable Care Act EXTENDS vaccine coverage to an additional 31 million children, vaccines are part of the ACA. So, try answering my question again: is it right for employers to decide whether or not children of their employees should be vaccinated?

          2. Mike Petrik says:

            Nope. Not right. Parents should decide, and employers should have nothing to do with it. Clear enough?

          3. EXACTLY says:

            This is why we should end employer sponsored Health Care insurance all together. It exists to benefit the employer with the tax consideration. It has broken the individual market by making it too small to function well. And anyone who believes your employer actually “pays” for your insurance is a fool. Your benefits costs are calculated into your compensation package and your salary is set accordingly. There are only 2 buckets, employer portion and employee portion because otherwise the employer would have no control over wage inflation if they paid 100% of premium. We should all have a HSA, which you should be able to contribute to pre-tax (you get the tax benefit not the employer) and allow an employer to make contributions to the account possibly. Then everyone as an individual picks the policy they want and they buy it with their HSA. Take employers out of the middle. Why should your VP of HR decide if you are offered Blue Cross Blue Shield or United Health Care? I’m capable of making those decisions on my own…how about you? And you don’t need a mandate…other forms of insurance use what is called an elimination period, and so does NJ for example.

          4. Charles says:

            Why should a politician or bureaucrat care if I have BC or United or self-insured? Why should a politician or bureaucrat care if I have no insurance at present and thus use 1/6th of the care, of which only 1/3 is assumed by me? (All Kaiser study figures) This scourge of the uninsured free-loading was a myth intended to elicit conservative support. 2/3 of the cost of 1/6 the care of the uninsured only comes up to a few hundred million. Yet PPACA costs much more and involves itself into many more parts of the system. Likewise the preexisting conditions gambit. All but 15 states had high-risk pools that offered comprehensive health coverage for this population at affordable rates. Yet to address a problem in 15 states PPACA sought it as justification for nationalized solution intruding in all matters of health care.

          5. Matt Bowman says:

            You haven’t answered my question of whether it is legal to have a religious or moral objection apart from Obamacare which is the only question we are dealing with, you have no basis for alleging that the question is whether someone uses contraception instead of whether it is covered which is the only question we are dealing with, you cite no source for the impossible “31 million children” number, you provide no information about how many of the real number of newly-covered children would have that coverage removed because of religious or moral objections (most likely none since most of the newly covered would get their new coverage from governments), and you fail to explain why the non-existent children, newly covered but threatened by religious plan providers, could not just have the federal government give them their vaccines for free instead of violating religious conscience. Let me know when you’re prepared to respond to these necessary issues.

    2. S. Quinn says:

      How strange that people compare abortifacients/sterilization/contraception to ANYTHING else.

      The “Where does it stop?” game is a red herring. Some people say, “What if we do not want to pay your diabetes’ bills because we think that comes from eating too much sugar,and it violates my conscience to pay for something that is your own darn fault?”

      Clearly, as far back as Aristotle, there have been many things that are a matter of prudential judgment, and some things for which prudence does not apply. Hence the whole discussion on virtues like courage being a moderation between rashness and cowardliness, whereas there is NO “prudence” or “moderation” or “mean” in TAKING AN INNOCENT LIFE.

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