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No simple answer to complexity of HHS mandate

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

May the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ bring you peace and hope! In these trying times, I continue to be asked whether cooperation with the HHS mandate, even unwilling, is morally acceptable, given the alternatives of significant fines or depriving people of decent health insurance. This is a difficult question, and one with which I, too, as an employer, must now wrestle. I cannot give a general answer that will fit the details of every individual situation, which might vary greatly; but I can spell out some of the moral necessities and limits that bind us all, in an effort to guide individual decisions.

Firstly, “The morality of human acts depends on the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; and the circumstances of the action” (CCC #1750). With respect to the HHS mandate, the “object chosen” is not a moral good. Artificial contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs are all grave moral evils (see e.g. CCC #2221, 2370, 2271); and moreover, the coercive nature of the mandate itself is also an evil, impinging as it does on freedom of conscience and of religion (CCC, #1738, 1902-3). Disobedience to such unjust laws is clearly envisioned by the Church, at least as heroic witness. Willing cooperation with such laws is clearly not morally justifiable.

But for many people, heroic resistance, although ideal, is perhaps not feasible. Most of us have responsibilities to family, to employees or coworkers, to creditors, and so on, that are simply part of our normal interdependence in daily life. Such obligations make it extremely difficult knowingly to take actions that would deprive our children of their parents (by going to jail for disobeying unjust laws), or deprive our fellows or even ourselves of a livelihood (by closing or reducing businesses to avoid such laws, or accepting the consequences of punitive fines), or the like. So then, is unwilling cooperation morally justifiable?
It is always true that “One may not do evil so that good may result from it” (CCC #1756; see also 1706, 1740). If we are to justify unwilling cooperation with evil, several things must therefore be true. First, the cooperation must be unavoidable. This may be absolute (there really is no other choice) or relative (all the other choices are objectively worse evils).

In the case of the HHS mandate, any unavoidability is certainly relative, but it’s not hard to imagine a situation in which those other choices (crippling fines, excessive unemployment, loss of access to necessary services) might indeed have equal or more damaging results as cooperation; for example, for the only hospital or nursing home in a large area.

Second, to justify unwilling cooperation, one must do everything possible to create new alternatives. This is an ongoing commitment. In the case of the HHS mandate, that means using both legal and political means of redress, especially for the larger businesses and institutions with the means of pursuing, for themselves and others, a more just law. For everyone, and especially for us as Catholics, it means leading by example, and using the power of the vote to elect politicians with greater moral vision and character, and to vote out those who perpetrate such unjust laws (CCC #1913-6, on participation and the common good).

Third, to justify unwilling cooperation, the cooperation must truly be unwilling. Grudging willingness is still willing. The evil result must be openly resisted as far as possible. In this case, we as Catholics affected by this law must continue to speak out about its harmful effects, its morally evil content, its abuse of power, its assault on conscience. We must continue to demand justice. It must be clear not only to us, but also to others, that the evil is recognized and proclaimed as evil, and is not any part of the intention of unwilling cooperation. In our analysis, the one unwillingly cooperating must will only a necessary good (in this case, access to health care for others), and be unable to opt out and, moreover, must choose only good means to accomplish that good. Thus, if another option exists to provide insurance without those moral complications, that option must be chosen; in the absence of such an option, one is forced unwillingly to cooperate. We call such unavoidable, unwilling, and alternative-seeking cooperation “indirect” (CCC #1736-7).

A third fundamental moral principle relevant to these considerations is the proper formation of conscience.

“The dignity of the human person implies and requires uprightness of moral conscience. Conscience includes the perception of the principles of morality…; their application…; and finally judgment about concrete acts…” (CCC #1780). Moreover, “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator” (CCC #1783). If one is more or less convinced that contraception, sterilization, abortion, or forcible coercion is not a moral evil, one has already somehow deprived oneself of God’s interior voice and guidance (see CCC #1791-2). A choice to cooperate with the HHS mandate made by a malformed conscience is not a morally defensible choice.

Finally, in every difficult moral decision, one must especially remember the Golden Rule, and the principle that “charity proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience… [I]t is not right to do anything to make your brother stumble” (see CCC #1789). If we give in too easily to such unjust laws, we can cause others to stumble by appearing to waffle about these moral evils. Conversely, if we reject our other responsibilities by, for example, closing Catholic schools or hospitals, we can cause others to stumble by depriving them of worthy services and the Church’s spiritual life. We must embrace neither extreme, but the way of the Cross in the middle, which leads us through the sacrifice of making truly difficult choices.

I know my letter today is somewhat detailed and complicated. I simply wanted to share with you some thoughts to consider. I am sure the mandate will be discussed at the upcoming meeting of the American bishops in Baltimore this coming week. Please pray for us bishops at this important time.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the light of the Holy Spirit give us courage to face these difficulties without loss of faith. May our example inspire the hearts of others weak in faith to a renewed or deeper conversion. May Christ’s mercy always be our hope and consolation. Above all, please continue to pray diligently this unjust law will be changed.

It’s nice to see that we have more and more Bronco fans across our diocese. I am sorry for the Minnesota Vikings fans and definitely not happy with how well the Kansas City Chiefs are doing. Enjoy this football season!

Your brother in Christ,

Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless,
Bishop of Sioux City

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