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Some Controversies Too Important To Oversimplify

Citing national debates over the religious and judicial implications having to do with fluoridation of water would draw little notice. Such was not always the case.
At last mid-century, when the pile of letters to the editor of The Christian Century might thin out for a few weeks, we editors would play games.

From our experience, we’d ask what subjects we might take up that would draw numerous vehement letters to the editor to inform and entertain readers. The top two at that time were “antivivisection” and “fluoridation.”

We could have added any number of others that had to do with the collision of interests pitting “the common good” versus “individual freedom,” especially freedom of religion. Pasteurization of milk, vaccination and chlorination of water were among them.

Beyond the needs of the body but dealing with the body politic have been vast numbers of others: the military draft, Sabbath and Sunday laws, and compulsory flag-salutes were or are among them.

Often, small religious groups best raise conscience matters. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Latter-Day Saints, the Amish. None of the issues could be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, so majorities of voters or legislatures or justices ruled.

This means that they used “coercion against conscience,” driving some citizens to inconvenience and prison.

There were often accommodations and compromises along the way. Somehow the republic survived.

Peggy Noonan in her recent Wall Street Journal column addressed this winter’s hot issue. In Washington “a bomb went off that not many in the political class heard, or understood.”

She referred to the Health and Human Services ruling that “Catholic institutions – including charities, hospitals and schools” will be forced to cover with insurance some procedures with which their church and many or most members disagree.

Why she turns sectarian and parochial and reduces this worthwhile and troubling controversy to Catholicism alone, it is hard to tell.

Or maybe it isn’t, because Catholics vastly outnumber the religious groups mentioned above. They have clout and have to be noticed, and Saturday’s column was an attempt to rally the troops.

More Noonan judgment: “In other words, the Catholic Church was told this week that its institutions can’t be Catholic anymore.”

The columnist then cheers, for intra-church political reasons, since their need to react will unify Catholics, “long split left, right and center.”

Why this HHS ruling? “There was no reason … none. Except ideology.” That also over-narrows the case.

People on the other side, many of them Catholic, favored the ruling as an issue of justice.

They may have been wrong, but they at least help make possible something better than a reduction to sectarian and ideological self-interest.

To turn this to something more positive: what if we agreed that this controversy is too important to waste by such reduction?

We live in a republic where not all electoral outcomes, legislative acts or judicial decisions will satisfy the consciences of all conscientious people and interests, religious or not.

Recognizing that, citizens have taken many courses: nonviolent or violent resistance, compromising, negotiating, living with a world not entirely of one’s own making or politicking.

Seeking immediate and total political advantage is tempting; Noonan gleefully, if I read her right, argues that this single decision has determined the outcome of elections a year from now and foresees new power for the 77.7 million Catholics in this land.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.