Thursday, February 9, 2012

Crises of Conscience in a Pluralistic Society

There has been a flurry of comment about the decision of the Obama Administration not to grant to Roman Catholic hospitals and universities an exemption to the requirement that their employee's health insurance cover contraceptive. There has been a lot of misinformation about the decision, just as there has been misinformation about how much of Planned Parenthood's services are for abortions. I suspect the misinformation has something to do with how poor a case there is for cutting funding to Planned Parenthood or for allowing Roman Catholic hospitals and universities the requested exemption. What is true is that Roman Catholic institutions that serve the public are facing a crisis of conscience. How are they to continue to fulfill their missions without violating their consciences by paying for contraceptives which they believe to be immoral?

Crises of conscience are not new, and having lived through my own, I have some sympathy for the boards of these Roman Catholic institutions. During the Vietnam war, and even earlier, some Americans, including my Quaker mother, believed that was wrong for them to support the military with their tax dollars. Some chose to  do what might be called living off the grid, making so little actual income that they did not have to pay taxes. My mother, however, worked as a college librarian and didn't have that option. She did have the option, which others took, of refusing to pay that part of her taxes that went to the military budget. She did that, knowing that the IRS would try to find a way to get the money. IRS tried to get her employer to garnishee her wages, but the college refused. Then the IRS went to her bank and the bank allowed the IRS to take the unpaid taxes out of her account. 

I admire the way my mother dealt with her crisis of conscience. Knowing the power of the government to get what it wanted, she simply refused to make it easy for it to collect her taxes. In the end, her taxes were paid, but under protest. In a pluralistic society with people who have all sorts of strong convictions, including religious convictions, there will frequently be conflicts. We cannot avoid crises of conscience, but we can deal with them graciously, recognizing that our convictions are not the only ones that matter.