I have been trying – for the sake of my dissertation, spiritual equanimity, and marriage – to ignore what I see as false outrage over the recent Health & Human Services mandate that Catholic hospitals and similar religiously affiliated employers provide their employees with the same access to contraception as secular employers are required to do. Yesterday, however, I was contacted by a reporter at CatholicVote.org with an interview request regarding my 2009 support of Kathleen Sebelius’ candidacy for Secretary of HHS, and the whole controversy suddenly became more personal.
Before responding, you see, I did a quick glance at CatholicVote.org’s website (the lead banner announces “CatholicVote.org endorses Rick Santorum for President!”), and in the process discovered that they’ve been having quite a field day with the “mandate.” Amongst other things, they’re keeping track of how many bishops have spoken out against it (169 as of Feb. 6, it seems), and they’ve listed my name (along with 25 others who signed the same letter as I did) asking if we will “disown” our support of “that rabidly pro-abortion woman” [read: Kathleen Sebelius] or “take Catholic off [our] names,” calling that the “only honorable choice” for us. The author of that post – Matt Bowman – goes on to say, “This is not political anymore. It never really was.”
Naturally, this got me thinking again about the “mandate” and the “war on Catholics” that it (supposedly) represents, and so it feels like finally the time for me to write something up about it all. Actually, what I have to say is rather simple, and perhaps not particularly new. It’s just this:
Has the meaning of Catholic faith and tradition come to be so impoverished that prohibiting artificial contraception (for Catholics and non-Catholics alike) is now its defining feature? (Even same-sex marriage is more consistently framed as anti-family rather than specifically anti-Catholic, after all.)
To frame this policy decision – requiring religiously-affiliated employers whose work is not exclusively religious, like hospitals and schools, to include contraception coverage in their health insurance – as fundamentally anti-Catholic implies that opposition to artificial contraception is so defining of Catholic identity that to disagree with it is to be anti-Catholic. That’s what all this talk of a “war on Catholics” is saying, as if subsidizing contraception in health insurance plans for employees (like married evangelicals) whose consciences do not prohibit birth control is somehow a direct assault on the very meaning of Catholic faith, tradition, and identity.
But seriously, if Catholics (or non-Catholics) who work in Catholic hospitals or schools out of a commitment to other elements of Catholic identity and tradition – like caring for the poor, or teaching the underprivileged, or comforting the aged – are able to have access to contraception equal to their counterparts in secular institutions, is their Catholic identity and religious freedom really undermined? Surely opposing artificial contraception is irrelevant to the day-to-day work of teaching elementary school kids math and reading, or providing hospice care to the elderly, or giving emergency care to burn victims. Are the Catholic institutions they work for really undermined by having these qualified workers follow their own consciences with regard to birth control?
Besides, it’s no secret that, before he published Humanae Vitae in 1968 (the encyclical that upheld the Catholic Church’s prohibition of contraception), Paul VI’s advisory committee of theologians, bishops, and laypeople overwhelmingly urged him to overturn that prohibition on artificial birth control. It’s also well-documented that few Catholics today follow this particular church teaching, and that in fact contraception usage by Catholics and non-Catholics in the U.S. is pretty much indistinguishable. In other words, opposition to artificial birth control is effectively a footnote to the Catholic identity of most Catholics – if even that.
In short, there is no “war on Catholics” going on, however timely such language may be during election season. This outrage has very little to do with the realities of either Catholic identity or religious freedom – but as political rhetoric, it certainly is inspiring. What’s not inspiring is how widespread this unnecessary and artificial outrage has become, at least in the talking points of some Catholics on both the left (including Sr. Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association, castigated by conservatives in 2010 for her support of “ObamaCare”) as well as the usual suspects on right.
In other words: you’re wrong, CatholicVote.org. This outrage is, indeed, quintessentially political.
UPDATE: My response to the aforementioned CatholicVote.org interview has been posted in this article (at the bottom).