A Man for One Season

Paul Greenberg

1/15/2014 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

As if the president's Signature Accomplishment, aka Obamacare, doesn't have enough problems, it's been put on hold by a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who recognized still another obstacle it faces: religious objections. These were raised by an order of Catholic nuns in Colorado. It seems the Little Sisters of the Poor run a nursing home and hospice there, and they don't want to sign on to Obamacare's requirement that they help provide contraception, sterilization or abortion through their health insurance plan.

Defenders of the requirement explain that the sisters don't actually have to provide all that themselves. All they need do is certify that they object to such procedures and they can opt out of the requirement. Their insurers will do the rest -- pay for it all, at least in theory, and have willing providers do what the Little Sisters find objectionable.

The nuns aren't the only ones who have raised conscientious objections to Obamacare's requirements. By now a whole array of Roman Catholic hospitals, universities and dioceses refuse to sign on to this arrangement.

Behind them in this line are Americans of all denominations or none who want nothing to do with taking innocent life. The ranks of conscientious objectors to Obamacare are varied and growing. And headed for the courts.

So what's the big problem? It's just a piece of paper, a formality, a "certification" if you prefer that term to oath. If it makes religious organizations complicit in actions they deem sinful, it makes them only slightly complicit. A third party will do the dirty/bloody work, and even that at a safe remove. The nuns' consciences will be clear, or so the federal government assures them. Even if it involves them in something they consider evil. But it's just a touch of evil, and that at a distance. Just a little evil never hurt anybody, right?

No, that's not the voice of the suave gentleman in red socks whispering in the nuns' ear but that of our own Justice Department. And if the nuns still won't take this handy out, the feds point out that they can just stop offering their nuns and priests, their doctors and nurses and other medical professionals any health insurance at all. Nobody's forcing them to provide it. Problem solved. Except for the small one of failing to do right by those who work in and for the order.

So much for this administration's real regard for workers' rights. When those rights get in the way of its ideology, it's the rights that must give way.

What we have here is part of the all too widespread assumption in modern American society (and many another) that not just church and state can be separated but religion and life. Religious convictions are reduced to just another "lifestyle choice." And we're assured we can discard our convictions without losing what makes us, us -- our core beliefs, our very selves. It's another illustration of the diminished sense of self in the modern world. What moral imperative? If it's inconvenient, just shuck it. As if we could separate ourselves from our convictions and remain ourselves.

It's not easy to explain the problem to those who have no deep attachment to religious convictions, or at least to others' religious convictions. What problem? The worldly lawyers at Justice can't see any. Any more than Henry VIII could understand why his long-time adviser, supporter, and learned envoy -- a distinguished and sophisticated man of the world like Thomas More, whom the king himself had knighted -- wouldn't just swear that the King of England ruled its church, too. It was a small thing His Majesty asked. A small thing to the king, anyway. All he asked was that his old supporter be "reasonable," that he keep his head. Literally.

And yet Sir Thomas, who would eventually become Saint Thomas More because of this "little" matter of conscience, wouldn't. Any more than the Little Sisters of the Poor would please just sign this slip of paper and put all this behind them and the administration. Why they won't seems to honestly puzzle those of a particular secular mentality. Robert Bolt tried to explain it to modern readers in the finer preface to his fine play, "A Man for All Seasons":

" ...(W)hy do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can't put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie? For this reason: A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement, when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtues; he offers himself as a guarantee. And it works. There is a special kind of shrug for a perjurer; we feel that the man has no self to commit, no guarantee to offer. Of course it's much less effective now that for most of us the actual words of the oath are not much more than impressive mumbo-jumbo than it was when they made obvious sense; we would prefer most men to guarantee their statements with, say, cash rather than themselves. We feel -- we know -- the self to be an equivocal commodity. There are fewer and fewer things which, as they say, we 'cannot bring ourselves' to do."

But what is all that to the lawheads at Justice? Or for that matter to a president who is a lawyer himself, and so has considerable experience at interpreting, waiving, canceling and generally explaining away any law that gets in his way. And that includes the immense, rambling, eponymous and still not completely explored statute he himself insisted in ramming through Congress and into law -- although he seldom if ever refers to it as Obamacare anymore. For obvious reasons.

So when Obamacare runs athwart the clear language of the Constitution, his Department of Justice solemnly argues before the high court that, when the First Amendment declares that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, it doesn't mean no law.

Once you get your head around that simple proposition, you'll have no problem seeing the Little Sisters of the Poor as just a nitpicking nuisance, a minor obstacle to Progress.

Coming up next: The case of private companies--like Hobby Lobby--whose owners also object to being made a party to things like abortion. Don't they understand that, when they open for business in the morning, they're supposed to check their religious convictions at the door? It's little enough to ask. At least it is for this administration.