Winter 2011

Editorial: The Repressive Logic of Liberal Rights: Religious Freedom, Contraceptives, and the “Phony” Argument of the New York Times

David L. Schindler

In its February 11 editorial,1 the New York Times refers to “a phony crisis over ‘religious liberty’ engendered by the right,” expressing its disappointment that President Obama was willing to “lend any credence to the misbegotten notion that providing access to contraceptives violated the freedom of any religious institution.” Such a facile dismissal ought to be greeted with concern by reasonable citizens, whether religious believers or not. An adequate response to the views expressed by the Times, however, evokes a number of difficult issues regarding rights in a liberal society, as well as regarding the idea of human dignity that justifies and first defines rights. Indeed, once we understand the (mostly unconscious) premises with respect to these issues that inform the Times’s editorial, we will see that its claim of a “phony crisis over ‘religious liberty’” is consistent with its premises and thus bears an inner coherence.

What I mean to suggest, then, is that Catholics make a grave mistake if they approach the current controversy on the assumption that all sides agree in principle about the nature and universality of rights, and if they thus think that what is at stake is simply a matter of a failure to apply this commonly held principle of universal rights with consistency. On the contrary, the liberal understanding of rights presupposed by the Times stands in deep tension with a Catholic understanding, on grounds of both reason and faith: the two notions of rights rest upon and are informed by significantly different ideas of human nature and dignity. Indeed, the rights assumed by the Times of their inner logic trump the rights claimed by Catholics, whenever, and insofar as, these differently conceived rights come into conflict.

The point, then, is that, if we fail to understand that the present crisis is at root one regarding the nature of the human being, our political strategies, however effective in the short term, will over the long term serve to strengthen the very assumptions that have generated the crisis in the first place. This does not mean that strategies that speak of rights in the liberal idiom cannot be justified for prudential reasons—even for a prudence that is Gospel-inspired. It means simply that even these strategies must be integrated as far as possible, from the beginning, into a more adequate sense of rights based on a fuller vision of the human person, if and insofar as such strategies are not themselves to reinforce the deeper terms of the crisis.

My purpose in what follows is to show the warrant for these judgments.           

1. “The Freedom to Choose Birth Control,” New York Times, 11 February  2012.