In the the original culture war of the 1870s, among the steps taken by Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck to reduce the power of the Catholic Church was to require that all marriages be registered civilly. As Eric Garcia-McKinley points out on his Everyday Historian blog (h/t Paul Harvey), church authorities decried this change in the Prussian state’s definition of marriage as an infringement on their religious liberty. Now that the secular state controlled marriage, they complained, a priest and a nun could be married! As indeed they could–if, as individuals, they chose to be.
Such removal of religious authority from public business is pretty much where we are in our own American kulturkampf. The difference is that now it’s the church, not the state, that is choosing to disengage from a system it finds at odds with its principles.
Take the case of adoption. Beginning in the 19th century, the American practice was to give responsibility for placement to agencies affiliated with particular religious bodies–on the presumption that children ought to be be raised in the same faith as their birth mother. But in a number of jurisdictions that give same-sex couples the same right to adopt as opposite-sex couples, Catholic social service agencies have gotten out of the adoption business rather than conform to civil law.
And we can expect that the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, if upheld in court, will lead some Catholic–and other faith-based–organizations to stop offering health insurance to their employees.
One can, of course, question whether the Catholic hierarchs really believe the mandate to be the unprecedented threat to their religious liberty they say it is. As Marc Stern notes in his review of the jurisprudence in Religion in the News, it was based on existing California and New York laws–that were litigated and found constitutional in 2004 and 2006 without provoking the kind of alarm the ACA has.
Yet if Cardinal Dolan et al. have now decided to draw this line in the sand, that’s their privilege. And if it hastens the day when health care ceases to be a responsibility of employers, so much the better.