Can you agree on contraception, but disagree on “religious liberty”?

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In their full-scale campaign against the Obama administration over regulations in the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. bishops and other Catholic organizations have repeated one phrase more times than you could possibly count: “This isn’t about contraception, it’s about religious freedom” (here are just a couple of recent examples from Cardinals Timothy Dolan and Donald Wuerl).

It is clearly a prepared talking point that anyone who speaks publicly about the controversy has been coached to say, but more importantly, it makes a distinction that believing in religious liberty doesn’t equate with accepting church teaching on contraception. But whenever someone speaking out in favor of the bishops’ campaign acknowledges that all Catholics are not on board, the reasoning they give seems to be that those Catholics disregard the church's teaching on contraception and simply don't understand that the issue isn't about birth control, but about ensuring the freedom of the church and its institutions.

What I haven’t seen, however, is anyone making the opposite argument: You might not agree with the bishops’ interpretation of the law in this case, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you reject the teaching of the church on contraception.

Many Catholics do indeed accept what the church has to say about birth control, sexuality, and human reproduction. They may either avoid birth control entirely or rely on natural family planning as a means of preventing pregnancy (or if they are unmarried, they practice abstinence). Catholics who accept and follow these teachings in their daily lives, however, might not arrive at the same conclusion as the bishops when it comes to what rights the First Amendment grants to religious organizations.

As Grant Gallicho at dotCommonweal points out, there are plenty of holes in the bishops’ argument. Catholics, even if they agree that contraception is morally unacceptable, might not believe the rhetoric of the bishops on this legal issue and may disagree with the approach they’ve taken (even Bishop Stephen Blaire told America that he has some concerns about the bishops’ methods). Upon examining the facts, the law, and relevant legal precedent, they may not believe there is a violation of religious liberty taking place (like Catholic law professor Nicholas Cafardi, for example). They may not see the need for the Catholic Church to file a lawsuit against the federal government over the issue, and they certainly might not feel like their church is being “strangled” by the federal government.

That doesn’t mean that practicing Catholics support the decisions of the Department of Health and Human Services, nor that they think contraception is a necessary part of health care that should be included in every employee’s coverage. But they might also accept that the government can make such a ruling, even if it conflicts with their personal beliefs.

Regardless of their reasoning, these Catholics haven’t been given an opportunity for respectful disagreement over something that is not a matter of doctrine, but a matter of law and policy. Instead of being given a chance to offer a dissenting opinion, they’ve been branded as heretical, unworthy to call themselves true Catholics even though they fully adhere to the teachings of the universal church in their own personal lives. Is that really the message the church wants to send to its members?

The bishops may believe that they have no choice but to fight a legal battle with the federal government. But they should be careful not to alienate those who are faithful to the church, even if they fail to support its leaders in the legal arena.