Phillip Muñoz on Catholic Bishops, Religious Liberty, and Health Care Mandates
Date: May 7th, 2012

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently released a document on religious liberty that criticized a new regulatory provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., Obamacare) requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptions, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.  Prof. Phillip Muñoz, the Tocqueville Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and an associate professor in the Notre Dame Law School, helps us wade through this controversy by explaining the bishops’ argument and how it relates to religious liberty.  After briefly outlining the controversy, we take up the initial issue of religious liberty with Phillip discussing what it means to have a right to religious liberty and then outlining the Catholic position on religious freedom.  We use the realm of educational policy to help frame the general theoretical and political issue, specifically pointing to the Wisconsin v Yoder Supreme Court case that challenged whether Amish citizens could exempt their children from mandatory schooling laws based on religious grounds.  Cases of parents refusing to have their children vaccinated for theological reasons is also discussed, and we note the tension between trying to balance the public interest with the right to individual conscience.  Following this general discussion, we return to the recent health care mandate, discussing the politics behind the new regulations and the Catholic bishops’ reaction.  Prof. Muñoz notes how the Catholic Church’s response was not to ask for particular exemptions from these regulations for their institutions (including dioceses, hospitals, and universities), but rather to oppose the mandate on a more general ground. It is noted that it is not just Church-owned institutions that are affected, but these regulations can have an impact on secular business owners who may be Catholic and/or simply opposed to paying for the contraception and abortions of their employees.  The reaction of the Obama administration, including the testimony of HHS Director Kathleen Sebelius, is considered.  Phillip notes how the issue of religious freedom, or the desire to opt out of these policies on grounds of moral conscience, never really occured to the people drafting and implementing the regulations.  Tony then asks Phillip about a tension he has noticed within Catholic social thought, between a tendency among bishops and other Church leaders to prefer a larger government-run welfare system and the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.  That latter principle states that social problems should be handled at the lowest level possible, a philosophy akin to notions of federalism and a more laissez-faire political philosophy.  We speculate about how this issue may affect the upcoming presidential election, and Tony asks Phillip how much sway the opinion and pronouncement of bishops has over Catholic voters.  We finish our discussion by noting that the letter drafted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also contained concerns over violations of religious freedom in other areas of public policy, including the immigration issue.  Here, the bishops appear to stand with the Obama administration in opposing recent laws in Alabama and elsewhere that make it difficult for the Catholic Church to minister to undocumented immigrants.  We end the podcast with Phillip reading the prayer that the bishops used to close their pastoral letter, a salient reminder of how the secular and the sacred cross paths in the public square and the importance that freedom represents to a religious society.  Recorded: May 2, 2012.




 Prof. Phillip Muñoz’s biography and website at Notre Dame.

God and the Founders: Madison, Washington, and Jefferson, by Vincent Phillip Muñoz.

“Catholic Bishops Take on Obama,” by Vincent Phillip Muñoz in The Weekly Standard.

“Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty,” by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

Wisconsin v Yoder Supreme Court Case (mentioned in podcast).

HHS Director Kathleen Sebelius testimony on contraception mandate and religious liberty, mentioned in the podcast (from GetReligion).


Joe Fuiten on Clergy and Politics.

Erik Stanley on Clergy & Free Speech.

Corwin Smidt on Religion, Elections, and the God Gap.

Allen Hertzke on Religious Liberty.

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