One can’t help but wonder if they were using some form of birth control when the still married Newt was carrying on a multi-year affair with Callista. Of course what people do in their own bedroom isn’t any of my or any one else’s business. To me that privacy is truly sacred. So I wouldn’t be raising this question were not for the former Speaker’s hypocritically and opportunistically accusing the President of an outrageous assault against religion. This is the same Mr. Gingrich who was beating the drums for Bill Clinton’s impeachment while he was having that affair. Now the former Speaker isn’t the only one distorting the Administration’s position on extending equal healthcare benefits to all those who qualify, or put another way, not discriminating against them just because they happen to work for an institution which has Church sponsorship. The modifications announced by the President will, despite short-term noise from the right, likely put the issue to political rest.
To some degree Gingrich and the other Republican candidates’ hyperbole is just a sideshow, another manifestation of the wild rhetorical excess that has characterized their primary contest. The real central player has been, and continues to be, the Catholic Church. Its bishops, according to the New York Times, had been gearing up for months. And this isn’t the first time Church hierarchy has entered the fray in the midst of a Presidential election campaign. No less than the future pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, ordered that John Kerry, a supporter of reproductive health choice, be denied Holy Communion in the midst of his 2004 contest with George Bush. Are these two interventions related — coordinated interference with our politics? I don’t necessarily think so. True in both instances choice was at issue — the first abortion and the second contraception. But, unlike as with Senator Kerry, the current uproar would have as easily come in a non-election year.
To be specific, I’d suggest all the talk of religious liberty is nothing more than a smokescreen. What’s really at stake is something much larger and far more significant than the implementation of the new healthcare legislation. It speaks to the very health of the Roman Church and perhaps of religion in America altogether. The key fact to keep in mind here is not that Church doctrine disallows contraception. It is that according to a Guttmacher Institute study 98% of Catholic woman use or have used birth control. That is an astounding statistic. Perhaps equally revealing is that while Catholics constitute 24% of the population, they accounted for 28% of abortions in 2008-9. In contrast, 51% of Americans are Protestants, but account for only 37% of abortions. These statistics — especially talking comfort from the 98% number — explain why the Administration may have underestimated the potential pushback against their ruling. Remember the insurance coverage requirement applies only to religion-sponsored but essentially non-sectarian institutions: service agencies, hospitals and universities. Each employs and serves non-Catholics, and each benefits from taxpayer financial support in one form or another. Churches, seminaries and other purely religious institutions are exempt.
The absence of compliance by virtually all Catholic women with such a core teaching speaks to the Church’s diminished hold on its followers. In fact, each and every one of these women are sinners, assumably subject to discipline. Remember the Church wanted to deny John Kerry Holy Communion. By that logic 98% of Catholic women might be similarly punished. After all, Kerry was merely supporting reproductive choice he wasn’t be necessarily engaging in it. The same can’t be said for these women. Since they face no punishment, we have to conclude that the Church, well aware of the statistics, has been averting its eyes from their sin. It would seem that they opted for a pragmatic decision in that regard. But the idea that the Church should de facto be sponsoring family planning through insurance simply went too far.
Few concerns have occupied Pope Benedict more than what he characterizes as cafeteria observance. The idea that individuals should be able to decide which beliefs and customs to incorporate into their lives undermines the authority of the Church and ultimately of its infallible pope. The Church is not a democracy and its ways are not optional. But it goes further than that. Disobedience, a laxity in observance, results in dilution. It isn’t simply that 98% of Catholic women are employing birth control, but that doing so opens a Pandora’s box leading directly to a religious black hole. It stands to reason that the Church’s lapsed members don’t come from the ranks of strict observers but from those who take unto themselves how their religion is to be practiced, which rules are to be followed and which are to be ignored. The same holds true for any religion.
I would submit that, regardless of what they say, it is this treacherous road not religious liberty that evoked the bishops’ reaction. For the Church, covering family planning is tantamount to officially sanctioning the faithful’s disobedience. It’s probably not an exaggeration to suggest that their outcry constitutes an emergency measure, applying a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. We all know that procedures like that can only carry so far. The source wound must ultimately be addressed. Interestingly, were it not for the current controversy many of us may not have been aware of this 98% disobedience statistic. It would be wrong to extrapolate that similar numbers apply to other Church doctrine or practices. Nonetheless, the statistic exposes a meaningful fissure in the religious wall, one that extends to other faiths who are also losing ground to those opting out of religion.
Let’s consider one more perspective on the current controversy and the window it may open on why people are turning from religion. Catholic women don’t live in a vacuum. They are as concerned about their individual rights and the historic domination of men as anyone else. It can’t be lost on them that the doctrines that prohibit family planning have been promulgated and policed by men — celibate men who eschew marriage. Obviously none of these men have experienced childbirth and all that implies nor have they had to provide for their family. 58% of women who have abortions already have one or more offspring. They know what it takes to bring up children, what challenges and sacrifices are involved in doing the best for even a single child. And beyond this issue that concerns modern women, the Church also holds fast to its sexist position regarding the ordination of female priests. In the end, family planning and an all-male priesthood are internal matters for Catholics. There religious freedom does pertain. But they do illustrate the kind of disconnect that exists elsewhere and that, among other issues, is turning so many away from religion. The bishops have these broader concerns of dilution and they are right to feel alarmed. It’s unsurprising that they are on the defense.
Whatever the underlying reason for the Church’s reaction to the health mandate, the issue of religious freedom has been raised and should not be ignored. In this current debate and in the one about abortion the rights of the religious are bandied about. It is a conversation always driven by those who follow religion, and specifically a certain kind of religious doctrine. But what about the rights of the religious who believe differently and who strongly support reproductive choice? And more to the point, what about those of the non-religious? That group of so-called nonbelievers is always left out, effectively treated as second-class citizens. That’s a serious omission because the Establishment Clause equally protects both the religious and non-religious. The Administration’s ruling with regard to the coverage of contraception covers institutions that purport to serve all citizens. So the rights of all have consequence.
The Republican candidates charge that the President is waging a war against religion. Leaving aside how preposterous that is, let me suggest the reverse. In invoking religion and religious beliefs as they do in a public context, these men are waging war against those who exercise their right not to be religious. In evoking God in all of our names, they are infringing on those who deny God’s existence. Is that the case? I don’t really think so, but arguing war against the non-religious is just as credible as implying that Barack Obama wants to destroy religion. And speaking of smokescreens, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that this claim is just another example of suggesting that somehow he is the other — not like us. You can easily read the war against religion talk as code, and you probably wouldn’t be wrong.
I’m happy that all those Catholic women will be given equal access to cost-free reproductive health. The fact that they follow a different faith than 76% of their fellow citizens should not diminish their equal rights under our common law. Perhaps, instead of expending so much energy in claiming a loss of their religious rights, the bishops should turn their attention instead to why 98% of self-identified Catholic women can’t accept this doctrine. Again that’s an internal matter, but I’d surely be thinking about it.