The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that prudence is the auriga virtutum, the “charioteer of virtues.” It’s “right reason in action,” the guide to correctly applying all other virtues. Rash action, no matter how well intended, violates prudence and usually does more harm than good. God gave us brains. He expects us to use them to judiciously pursue the highest moral good for others and for ourselves.
At the same time, the Catechism warns that prudence should never be used as an alibi for “timidity or fear, duplicity or dissimulation.” Real prudence has a spine called fortitude, the virtue we more commonly know as courage. And courage, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”
Here’s why both these virtues are vital in the weeks ahead. On Friday, February 2, the Obama administration issued for public comment a set of revised regulations governing the HHS “contraceptive mandate.” At first glance, the new rules have struck some people as a modest improvement. They appear to expand, in a limited way, the kind of religiously-affiliated entities that can claim exemption from providing insurance coverage for contraceptive and abortion-related services under the new Affordable Care Act.
White House apologists and supporters have welcomed the proposal. The New York Times called it “a good compromise.” Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and NARAL Prochoice America have praised it. And at least one Washington Post columnist implausibly called it a victory for America’s Catholic bishops.
The trouble is, the new rules are very complex. And they may actually make things worse. In the words of Notre Dame Law Professor Gerard Bradley:
“Gauging the net effect of the new administration proposal [is] hazardous. But one can say with confidence the following: (1) religious hospitals are, as before, not exempt ‘religious employers’; (2) religious charities are very likely not exempt either, unless they are run out of a church or are very tightly integrated with a church. So, a parish or even a diocese’s Saint Vincent De Paul operations would probably be an exempt ‘religious employer,’ whereas Catholic Charities would not be; (3) the new proposal may (or may not) make it more likely that parish grade schools are exempt ‘religious employers.’ But Catholic high schools are a different matter. Some might qualify as ‘religious employers.’ Most probably will not.
“It is certain that Catholic colleges and universities do not qualify as exempt ‘religious employers.’ The new proposal includes, however, a revised ‘accommodation’ for at least some of these institutions, as well as some hospitals and charities. The proposal refines the administration’s earlier efforts to somehow insulate the colleges and universities from immoral complicity in contraception, mainly by shifting — at least nominally – the cost and administration of the immoral services to either the health insurance issuer (think Blue Cross) or to the plan administrator (for self-insured entities, such as Notre Dame). This proposal adds some additional layering to the earlier attempts to insulate the schools, but nothing of decisive moral significance is included.”
The White House has made no concessions to the religious conscience claims of private businesses, and the whole spirit of the “compromise” is minimalist.
As a result, the latest White House “compromise” already has a wave of critics, including respected national religious liberty law firms like the Becket Fund and the Alliance Defending Freedom. And many are far harsher than Professor Bradley in their analysis.
The scholar Yuval Levin has stressed that the new HHS mandate proposal, “like the versions that have preceded it, betrays a complete lack of understanding of both religious liberty and religious conscience.” In reality, despite the appearance of compromise, “the government has forced a needless and completely avoidable confrontation and has knowingly put many religious believers in an impossible situation.”
One of the issues America’s bishops now face is how best to respond to an HHS mandate that remains unnecessary, coercive and gravely flawed. In the weeks ahead the bishops of our country, myself included, will need both prudence and courage – the kind of courage that gives prudence spine and results in right action, whatever the cost. Please pray that God guides our discussions.