Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
These days, Catholic Bishops represent little more than pompous old guys in medieval Halloween costumes. Or, at least, they represent little in the eyes of the Washington powers-that-be. The Obama Administration’s recent decision that all employers fund insurance plans guaranteeing access to contraception leaves little religious wiggle-room for serious Catholics.
As a part of the guidelines for implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Department for Health and Human Services issued a fiat stating that by Summer 2012 all individual and group health insurance plans, including self-insured plans and plans provided by various religious enterprises, must cover all FDA-approved contraception, sterilization procedures, and even pharmaceuticals potentially resulting in abortion.
On the religious spectrum, I’m a liberal, meeting-house-styled Protestant (Congregationalist), whose minister occasionally unveils his “Pope puppet” to illustrate more salient points come Reformation Sunday. Yet, in this case, it’s not a matter of the Church quibbling with Martin Luther; it’s the White House excommunicating American religious freedom.
Honestly, whether or not a Catholic makes use of birth control is of little interest to me; but when the federal government mandates that a Catholic–or any individual or institution for that matter–pay for a product violating his religious teachings, I fear the Feds are bastardizing the First Amendment and its Free Exercise Clause.
The Right has decried compliance with the new regulations, which they say liken pregnancy to disease, broadly define “contraceptives” and don’t allow for a woman to decide whether or not she even wishes her insurer to cover reproductive services. The crux, though, remains the attack on well-known Catholic doctrine. Catholic tradition, articulated in the Humanae Vitae, holds that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” To do otherwise is, for a Catholic, a challenge to the universe and a questioning of divine wisdom.
If this sounds peculiar to you, fine. There’s no movement to usher unwilling Americans into Latin mass. For those who do find meaning, tradition, sanctuary, and love in the Catholic faith, however, this law represents more than bureaucratic fine-print. Rather, they see it as trespassing upon their morals.
Yes, the health-care law incorporates a narrowly-worded religious “exemption.” Unfortunately, though convents might be exempt, Catholic hospitals, charities, and universities are not. While it’s true that many who are employed by Catholic hospitals don’t necessarily answer to the Pope, no one is forced to work for Catholic causes. In this case, politicians–like true believers– must acknowledge free will. Presumably, a St. Marys pharmacist, while perhaps not steeped in theology, is, at the very least, not hostile to Catholic teachings.
Pro-Choicers should respect people’s decisions to work where they please and pay for the form of health insurance that best suits their needs and belief-systems. One proposed olive-branch is for Catholic hospitals to point inquiring women toward alternative outlets where they may acquire contraception, without the Church facilitating the exchange.
My travels in certain more conservative academic circles have provided me the privilege of meeting a number of genuine, benevolent Catholic students and faculty. The Catholic Church receives a lot of flack – some of it deserved, and some of it unnecessarily hostile. Although I may disagree with its rigidity, the Church’s position on contraception is not a sinister dictum designed to subjugate women. Rather, it’s a rigorously debated code that says sex is a gift and holy act between married partners. What’s more, that act may result in the gift of a child, who regardless of his or her status, intelligence, or health, is seen as a life that’s always, always worth living. This is a purposely difficult framework to live by, yet I admit, even as a Protestant, I see a divine beauty in it. But beauty (or bigotry) are beyond the scope of this article. This shouldn’t be a trial for the soul, it’s a crusade for the Constitution. America’s rich religious history and tolerance calls for broad religious freedom, whether that be speaking with “Thees” and “Thous,” driving a buggy, worshiping Allah, or taking a firm stance on birth control.
The Obama Administration has attempted to keep the conversation rooted in reproductive politics, with deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter announcing, “Women across the spectrum see this…as a basic matter of protecting their health.” When it comes to the so-called culture wars, I’m often confused that both sides don’t try reducing their differences. If progressives are bent on increasing access to birth control, why not pursue an agenda where conservatives have little ground for protest? Pay for contraception via private fundraising efforts and conservative blowhards will have far less to gripe about. Sure, there will always be, as the cheeky H.L Mencken said, some Christian “who is deathly afraid that someone, somewhere, is having fun.” Thankfully, the religious spoil-sports have few Constitutional mechanisms to intrude on the contraception choices of others. But intruding on private religious decisions infringes upon an entirely new, metaphysically-messy terrain.
In the final Republican New Hampshire debate, met with a strange birth control question from the typically suave George Stephanopoulos, candidate Mitt Romney responded,“Contraception’s working just fine.” The whole exchange was amusing. Apparently a renowned liberal journalist like Stephanopoulos predicted that Republicans, when given the opportunity, would proclaim some wacky witchcraft on prime-time television. Instead, at least fleetingly, the Republican cohort came across looking reasonable. I know of no candidate, Christian or otherwise, looking to reinstate the Puritanical “blue laws” of New England’s past. On that front, progressives and conservatives are in agreement; govermentally banning contraception would be absurd. Why then, if we can shake hands on this premise, is it acceptable for this Administration to compel institutions to purchase contraception, against religious teaching?
Electorally, this isn’t wise for Democrats. The Catholic vote swung for Obama in 2008, yet supported George W. Bush in 2004 and lined up for the GOP in the 2010 midterms. According to the National Journal, 55 of the Catholic bishops objecting to the health-care decision represent dioceses in what will be upcoming battleground states. Since 1972, no candidate, with the exception Al Gore in the nail-bitter 2000 election, has ever won the Catholic vote without also winning the nation.
Pro-choice advocates and the progressive media have handed Obama a political indulgence because, well, Catholics make an easy target. Critics can mumble something about hierarchy, patriarchy, and medievalism and then feel justified in bullying the Church. If you want to launch yet another Reformation, go for it. If you want to crack jokes about the Pope-mobile, be my guest. But when Washington, in a breech of the Establishment Clause, has the gumption to enact a universal secularism and national birth control coverage, I’m going to pray to Mary.