OK, so maybe the above title is a little much. What I’m referring to, though, is the recent debate between the Obama Administration and Republicans regarding birth control.
First of all, who knew that birth control was even an issue in the 21st century? Yes, the Catholic Church has always been against it, for reasons which baffle me, but the vast majority of Catholic women, some 98%, have used one form or another of birth control. And then there was the kerfuffle a few weeks back about the requirement that Catholic-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and schools should have to follow the law and provide contraception to those who work for them as part of their medical benefits package.
Now as an aside, and maybe before I go any further, in terms of full disclosure it might be best if I’m upfront about a couple of things: first, I’m writing as what is sometimes called an ex-Catholic, and second, I’m also writing as an ex-monk (more about that another time).
But getting back to the insurance fuss, the argument the church made was that religiously affiliated institutions should be given a pass when it comes to obeying the law, because providing contraceptive aids as part of their medical coverage for employees goes against the teaching of the church and its sense of morality. I hope that’s fairly put. I am trying to be balanced here. And I suppose that the way these institutions might have framed it to the people who work for them would go something like this: if you don’t like our rules, fine, go find another job! And we all know how easy that is these days!
In the ensuing days and weeks, the Obama Administration made what I thought was a very reasonable compromise, namely, to exempt these affiliated institutions from paying for contraception as part of a healthcare package, and instead have the insurers themselves pay. Sounds eminently reasonable to me! I’ll pass over the fact (as Cicero used to say in his Orations) that my personal take on it was to say that Catholic-affiliated institutions are not the Catholic Church, and as such should not have been given an exemption from the law. They are hospitals, or schools, or social service organizations, not churches. But, OK, I try to be a reasonable person, and I am willing to engage in a little give and take. So, with this compromise solution, I figured everybody would be happy, right? But, no, that’s not the case!
Amazingly, the Catholic bishops are still highly disturbed, as are Republicans generally. The Republican presidential aspirants in particular, too, have all jumped on this same rickety bandwagon, and some Congressional Republicans are even making noises about how contraception itself ought to be outlawed. Really? I thought we fought that battle decades ago!
Now, I hope that there are lots of women out there who take this very personally. Even I take it personally, as much as maybe I shouldn’t. But for me, the whole scenario harkens back to a conversation I had way back in 1967 when I was twenty-two years old. I had just left the monastery, and my sainted and now sadly departed mother and I had a deeply personal talk. She told me that for years our local parish priest had refused her absolution in the confessional, because she and my father had decided to use contraceptives. The background here is that, when I was growing up, we were poor, pretty much by about anybody’s standards, and my parents had decided that they could not afford more than three children. They couldn’t even afford the three of us, from what I could see! But the priest told my mother that she would “burn in the fires of everlasting hell,” if she continued on with this practice, and that if she did not wish to have more children, there was one good way to do so: she and her husband could stop “having relations.”
Let me remind you that this conversation took place forty-five years ago now, but things don’t seem to have changed much with the Catholic Church of today. They’re still telling people how to conduct their sex lives, and they’re still telling folks that, if they don’t want kids, they should just damn well stop having sexual relations. Because that, in effect, is what their argument comes down to. Can’t afford kids? Fine, I’ve got just the thing for you: don’t have sex! Young and not married yet, but horny all the time? Fine, I’ve got just the thing for you: don’t have sex! Can’t stop being gay? Fine, I’ve got just the thing for you: don’t have sex!
Now, again, I want to be fair about things, and emphasize that I am talking here about the “official Catholic Church,” specifically as represented by its bishops and archbishops. And I should add that I understand that many rank and file Catholics do not necessarily agree with, or follow, the dictates of the bishops. Still, the fact remains that it is the position of “The Church,” and that’s what I’m making reference to.
It seems to me that what the question really boils down to is, how do we understand it when we read that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” I don’t have to say that this is a direct quote from the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution. Of course, reasonable people can and do disagree on how to interpret this, and they have disagreed ever since the Bill of Rights was first promulgated. Maybe this issue will someday come before the Supreme Court for resolution. But for now, pretty much all we’ve got to go on is, what do you think, and what do I think? The official Catholic Church continues to preach against sex, as do many other churches, except as they narrowly define it. And that surely is their First Amendment right, which I uphold absolutely. But it does not mean that institutions, which are NOT churches, ought to be exempt from following the law, just as that law applies to all other similar, but non-religious institutions. Everyone in fact has to obey the law, including church affiliated businesses, a thing which, in my view, can in no way be construed as prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
There are many who say that the Republicans have already achieved victory with the Administration’s compromise on the issue, so why go on to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? But no less a figure than Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has written recently in an Op-Ed piece in the Lexington Herald-Leader (and quoted in the LA Times in an article by Lisa Mascaro): “Government cannot tell someone whether their religion is worth believing. It doesn’t matter whether the president thinks your beliefs are antiquated; your right to practice them is protected.”
What I want to know is how does Mr. McConnell get there from the compromise that was offered? But that’s what the Catholic bishops believe, too. And that is where we seem to be for the moment. Republicans are hell-bent on passing a law that does away with the provision that insurers must provide free birth control for their members, and the priest who heard my mother’s confession would surely be delighted. So much for the progress women have made in regard to when and how often they – and their partners – decide to have children. I’ve heard it said that this issue of requiring Catholic-affiliated institutions to provide contraceptives as part of their health insurance package is one thing that unites both conservative and liberal Catholics. I have to say I really hope that is not the case. I hope that liberal Catholics – and, well, conservative ones too, for that matter – can see how important it is to treat all people fairly, even those who may have jobs at church affiliated hospitals or schools or social agencies. I don’t see how that can impinge on the free exercise of religion, but I can see how it keeps Congress from making laws respecting the establishment thereof.