Thomas Hobson (1544-1631) was a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England, who gave customers the "choice" of any horse in the stable as long as it was the one in the stall nearest the door. A way of preventing the best horses from being overused, the actual choice was "take it or leave it" — a genuine choice, but not very attractive to the customers if they happened to draw plugs.
There are other types of disagreeable choices, most of them dating from the modern age in which choice itself has been raised to a virtue, regardless of the objective quality or morality of the options. At the top of the list is Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," described in the Wikipedia as being "a logical paradox arising from a situation in which an individual needs something that can only be acquired by not being in that very situation."
Then there's the "double bind" in which there are two or more conflicting situations, all presumably equally valid but which contradict each other, so that a positive response or reaction to any one negates all the others, with disastrous consequences — as it is often put, "You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't."
We now have "Obama's Choice." The Pro-Choice president has delivered a mandate that under the mantra of "choice" forces people to take the only option given, willy-nilly. As we saw in yesterday's posting, President Obama believes his position to be solid — politically, economically, and legally.
Politically, the American bishops have a history of giving ground, as demonstrated by the ineffectiveness of the Pro-Life movement and the fact that many Catholics voted for Obama in the last election. Economically, individual Catholics and the Catholic Church as a whole are dependent on the government for funding the social programs they have demanded for over a century. Legally, Congress passed a law, and the law is always right . . . except when the Supreme Court says it isn't, and the Supreme Court isn't about to do anything to undermine the power it has managed to gather to itself.
Fortunately for the American people and the Constitution, "Obama's Choice" isn't really what the president thinks it is. Obama is obviously relying on there being no alternatives to what he proposes, and the proven ineffectiveness of the American bishops — and religious leaders of other faiths — when faced with the power of the State.
The fact is, however, that there are alternatives to the current system that glorifies State power over everything else. "Obama's Choice" is actually what is called in logic a "false dilemma": only two choices are presented (obey the law or suffer the consequences) when, in fact, there are others.
Obama assumes as a given that he has Catholics and the Catholic Church in his back pocket. He clearly believes that neither individual Catholics nor the institutional Church will vote him out of office and risk losing the benefits that presumably only the State can provide and which the various Republican candidates want to cut. Obama, so he believes, has the Catholic Church over a barrel.
Therein lies Obama's first miscalculation. While the Catholic Church is the most visible and vocal target of the contraception mandate, the contraception mandate is not a "Catholic issue." There are people of other faiths, even none at all, who recognize the danger of the State dictating religious beliefs and practices, and thereby attempting to establish religion in contravention of the First Amendment.
Obama, however, has made an even more serious miscalculation. That is to accept without question the assumption that the proper role of the State is to be the sole guarantor of all individual material goods. The "common good" or general welfare over which the State exercises authority is, in this understanding, the aggregation of all individual material goods. That being the case, the State has not only the right, but the duty to guarantee a minimally acceptable standard of living for everyone, and to decide what, exactly, constitutes "acceptable."
If it is, in fact, the case that the State is the sole guarantor of all individual material goods, then the determination of those goods is a purely civil (that is, non-religious or domestic) matter. The Catholic Church or any other religious body can give its opinion as to the objective goodness (or badness) of anything the State has deemed a good, but that opinion is just that — an opinion, and has no validity unless the State as an exercise of prudence or expedience chooses to accept that opinion, and in its generosity allow that opinion to be applied to members of that religious body. If, however, allowing the exception would create an unacceptable precedent (e.g., prevent people from being guaranteed what the State has determined to be a desired result), then the religious body or bodies must give way.
Suppose, however, that the common good — the general welfare — is not, in fact, the aggregate of individual material goods enjoyed by the citizens of a State? Suppose (for the sake of argument) that this "common good" is something less material and a bit more spiritual. If that is the case, then the State would not only be overstepping its bounds to deny religious bodies and institutions exemptions based on conscience, it would be a tyranny for trying to guarantee results by usurping rights that belong to individual citizens and their free associations — rights that are vested in those same citizens to empower them to meet their own needs by their own efforts, thereby growing and developing their potential as human beings.