What the Catholic Contraceptive Debate Is Really About

Today's debates about contraception and inequality are intertwined in that the bring up the question of morality.

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There are two vital debates happening in the political blogosphere and twitterverse right now.

One has to do with the Obama administration's health insurance mandate guaranteeing access to contraception, even if it collides with Catholic conscience.

The second, sparked by Charles Murray's new book Coming Apart, is over the plight of the white working-class, and whether it's driven by morality—the decline of marriage, the rise of illegitimacy, diminishing work ethic—or economic forces like declining wages.

My sense is that the two debates revolve around the same thing: the tension—one could argue the pretense—of the neutral liberal state.

[ Read the U.S. News debate: Should Catholic and Other Religious Institutions Have to Cover Birth Control?]

This tension has implications for both liberals and conservatives.

Bear with me.

Peter Viereck and Russell Kirk both cited the Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana as an exponent of conservatism—or at least as an important critic of liberalism.

For this reason: In Dominations and Powers: Reflections on Liberty, Society, and Government, Santayana argued that liberalism suffered from a fatal internal contradiction—that between its profession of tolerance and its desire to reform and enlighten:

So, all our grievances being righted and everyone quite free, we hoped in the nineteenth century to remain for ever in unchallengeable enjoyment of our private property, our private religions, and our private morals. ... But there was a canker in this rose. The dearest friend and ally of the liberal was the reformer; perhaps even his own inmost self was a prepotent Will, not by any means content with being let alone, but aspiring to dominate everything. Why were all those traditional constraints so irksome? Why were all those old ideas so ridiculous? Because I had a Will of my own to satisfy and an opinion of my own to proclaim.

In the fight over birth control, this tension is in high relief. Liberals claim they're striving for neutrality. Let women, not employers, not men, decide what's right for their own health. Just below the surface, however, they're arguing that reproductive freedom is a public good, and worthy of enforcement by the state.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

They're making a moral argument without admitting it.

Conservatives are—or used to be—plagued by the same dissonance in the argument over working-class whites and inequality, and, by extension, contraception. But they got over it—mostly.

In his indispensable book Democracy's Discontent: America In Search of a Public Philosophy, Michael Sandel observed:

From the 1930s to the 1980s, conservatives criticized the welfare state in the name of the voluntarist conception of freedom. However desirable old-age pensions or school lunches or aid to the poor might be, argued conservatives such as Milton Friedman and Barry Goldwater, it was a violation of liberty to use state power to coerce taxpayers to support these causes against their will.

Yet by the '80s, conservatives like William Bennett and Lawrence Mead had abandoned the voluntarist conception, especially on the issue of welfare. James Q. Wilson wrote of a "growing awareness that a variety of public problems can only be understood—and perhaps addressed—if they are seen as arising out of a defect in character formation."

Which plants us right in the middle of today's inequality debate.

Conservatives, at bottom, are making a moral argument: If working-class whites got married before they had kids, and stayed married, they would experience less material convulsion. Liberals say the state must be neutral toward social mores, and seek meliorist solutions for problems like unemployment and low wages for unskilled labor.

[ Check out U.S. News's Economic Intelligence blog.]

But Murray, along with elected conservatives like Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan, would say such activism will accomplish for whites about as much as it has for poor blacks: namely, nothing. Nothing, that is, except more deeply entrenched dependancy.

They're making what will appear to some to be a domineering moral argument.

That's why I suspect it's out of convenience that conservative Catholics are arguing against mandated contraception coverage on procedural grounds. When they appeal to the right of conscience for unpopular minorities, they're strategically ceding ground to liberals; they're letting liberals avoid making the moral argument for reproductive freedom so that they can likewise avoid making their own moral argument against reproductive freedom.

I think everyone's full of it.

Like Sandel, I wish we could have an honest public-philosophical debate out in the open—even if it requires using the M-word.