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Fissures in the religious liberty debate?

May 29, 2012, 2:06 pm | Posted by Jennifer Butler

birth control pillsIn a move that escalated the political controversy about contraception and religious liberty, 44 Catholic bishops and colleges filed lawsuits last week challenging the requirement that health insurance plans cover birth control without a copayment.

But it’s also notable that relatively few leaders participated – only 13 of America’s 195 Catholic dioceses joined the suits. And in a move that was little noticed outside religious media, a prominent bishop expressed concern that the entire debate is being co-opted by right-wing groups bent on attacking President Obama.

That might sound like inside baseball, but it’s a clear sign of significant internal fissures over the Catholic bishops’ increasingly politicized confrontation against the Obama administration. As Republican politicians accuse the president of waging war on religious freedom and extremist religious leaders compare the administration to totalitarian dictatorships, a warning against partisanship is welcome news.

Amid all the hyperbolic claims about supposedly grave threats to religious liberty, it’s worth taking another look at the facts of the contraception coverage debate.

Last year the independent Institute of Medicine reviewed medical research and public comments about which health care services should be classified as essential preventive services to be covered without a copayment in health insurance plans. Contraception was identified as one of these services. This was an evidence-based health policy decision, not an ideological attack on religious liberty.

Recognizing that some religions consider contraception wrong, the Department of Health and Human Services carved out an exemption to this requirement for religious institutions. After many moderate faith leaders criticized the exemption as too narrow, the Obama administration offered a further accommodation ensuring that institutions such as religious schools, charities, social service providers and hospitals won’t be required to pay for contraception coverage for their employees. Final versions of these regulations are being formulated right now. Unfortunately, many of the loudest voices in this debate either pretend this accommodation was never offered or inaccurately dismiss it as an “accounting gimmick.”

This controversy isn’t going away, and it’s not just a Catholic issue. Some evangelical leaders have suggested that they will join the Catholic bishops’ upcoming “fortnight for freedom” campaign to mobilize Christians nationwide to stand against alleged threats to religious liberty. I hope moderate voices who prefer dialogue and good-faith negotiation over litigation and inflammatory rhetoric become more influential. The debate we’re having now is rooted more in politics than it is in reality.

4 Responses to “Fissures in the religious liberty debate?”

  1. Annette Magjuka says:

    Thank you for this. I am a lifelong Catholic, the oldest of five. All five of us attended the University of Notre Dame, and I met my husband there. Two of our children attended ND. My aunt, now in her 80′s, is a nun and taught calculus and physics in Catholic schools for decades for meager compensation and little praise. Now for some reason, Notre Dame has decided to become the handmaiden of the far right. I am devastated. I will say right up front: I believe life begins at conception and that abortion is a grave, moral decision. But moral complexity is not the same as moral relativism. In my 56 years, I have experienced much moral complexity when it comes to family planning, contraception, and being a fully engaged, educated woman with adult children. My mom was 18 when she married, a staunch Catholic. By the time she was 23, she had all five of us kids (“natural family planning” was even discouraged in these days). When my parents talked about “responsible parenthood” in the early 60′s, my aunt chastised my mom, saying, “What are you going to do about your marital problem?” My mom never forgot that comment. When she was in her early 40′s, she got early onset breast cancer. After her chemo and radiation, she thought she was pregnant. This was before instant pregnancy tests. Her doctor said she could not have that baby, that there was no way for it to be healthy after all the chemo and radiation. The personal hell she experienced in those few days was something that is seared in my memory. She was devastated and suffered more than she ever would again, even when she died 20 years later of pancreatic cancer. It was then I realized that I could not march in another Right to Life event. My mother was supported by her priest, her family, her doctors. It was as it should be. There was not a Rick Santorum-like candidate involved in her decision. In the end, she was not pregnant, so she did not have to “choose.” But individual conscience is key to being truly Catholic. Her priest knew this. Somehow, this element of Catholicism has been lost. A new, harsh, rules-oriented and obedience based religion is being thrust on the faithful. The Pope has decided to “crack down” on nuns like my aunt, who gave all she had to her church. She is “a radical feminist” according to him. At 83, she needs a bishop to oversee everything she does, everything she reads? My family was involved in the Civil Rights movement. When I was young, this was the church that sustained me and made me feel that my faith was a force for good in the world. Now the few want to command blind obedience to draconian rules and regulations. They have branded Obama as evil, even when he has done more to give health care to millions who had previously been denied coverage. How is this the moral stand? I have three adult children. I have an unmarried 29 year old. If she never finds “the one,” must she be celibate, never have a child? Or as the Australian bishop recently suggested, should she “lower her standards”? I have a 21 year old daughter who takes birth control to regulate her cycle. She is an athlete who was becoming anemic from loss of blood. Should she be denied the medication she needs for some overall principle that has nothing to do with her? When my son was at ND, some of his friends were so ignorant about sex that they had unprotected sex every weekend. He bought condoms and told them to use them if they had sex. Is he wrong? Or were the lives of these irresponsible young men and their partners not worth anything to the Church? I am outraged. I am sad. Please, let some common sense enter the conversation! Obama’s behavior is much closer to Jesus’ than Romney any day. The Catholic church has been co-opted by the Far Right. I am devastated. Thank God neither of my parents is alive to see this day.

  2. Shirley Bianchi says:

    Precisely!! This was a fabulous response. I am 82, and “back in the day” had 5 kids in 4 1/2 years. Had my husband and I not realized that the rhythm system equaled a baby a year, we would have ended up with dozens of them. Because of the Church’s attitude toward women, our four daughters will have nothing to do with it. I love my Church, but like Annette Magjuka, am so saddened that some of the hierarchy have turned to promoting the radical right. The way I phrase it is, that they have turned Jesus in for the RNC.

  3. Deacon Dennis Brown says:

    AMEN, Annette!!!! Thank you very much, and bless you, for your comments and public witness!

  4. Rev. Chris Promis says:

    The nuances of Catholic Moral Theology and pastoral theology are being suppressed by Moral Absolutist. I am amased at how few bishops seem to know moratl theology. Thanks Annette!