Catching up with Conservatism: A New Papacy

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.


  1. If the Catholic Church can change its ruling on whether or not Purgatory exists, or on whether or not the purchase of Church-issued indulgences will guarantee you a ticket into heaven, then I’m fairly confident that the Church can change its definition of sex to allow (at the VERY least) for two heterosexual, married adults to engage in loving intercourse without intending to bring new children into the world every time. Stewardship of earth definitively entails not overpopulating it. Therefore, condoms, birth control, and Plan B should all be perfectly acceptable in the eyes of religious institutions.

  2. I could be wrong, but insurance standards and standards of medicine *are* secular realms, since they involve scientific determinations of medical practice, not religious belief.

    As a side note, I’m not sure how much credence to give an anti-contraceptive stance from a religion/denomination whose women use contraception at the same rate as everyone else.

  3. Actually, the Church still teaches Purgatory exists and issues indulgences. I would not be “fairly confident” the Church will change its teachings on contraception.

  4. If I have to pay taxes that go to wars I don’t agree with, the least Catholic employers can do is pay for optional health services.

  5. Saying that the Catholic Church “still issues indulgences” as a response to the comment made by ‘S’ is tremendously misleading. Yes, the Church still issues indulgences. But they don’t sell them, as this practice was banned in the 16th century when Martin Luther&co. got up in arms about it. An indulgence is just, essentially, an approved trade of good acts for time spent in Purgatory by a sinner who was forgiven for his sins. Yes, all of this seems strange, but I’d argue that most every mainstream religion maintains some equally strange and outrageous-sounding beliefs. And I fail to see why the idea of Purgatory is any weirder than the concepts of Heaven and Hell, if this is what was implied by ‘D’.

    All that said, I may have been raised Catholic, but I think that the American Church’s pushback against covering contraception is absurd. As so many have pointed out throughout this debate, birth control is prescribed for far more than preventing pregnancy. For many, it’s a necessity, and without insurance coverage, can be an expensive necessity.

    Furthermore, “and even pharmaceuticals potentially resulting in abortion”–I’m assuming this is in reference to Plan B? How many studies and reports need to be issued before people stop clinging to the idea that Plan B can cause abortion? Even Catholic doctors themselves have come around on this in the past year or so: http://ncronline.org/news/catholic-journal-says-plan-b-does-not-cause-abortions

    Additionally, one person’s “rigorously debated code that says sex is a gift and holy act between married partners” is another’s “sinister dictum designed to subjugate women.” This is the exactly what people mean what they talk about institutionalized misogyny and the patriarchy. No, a group of Catholic bishops never got together, and rubbed their hands as they cackled like evil cartoon archenemies, plotting the ways to keep women barefoot, pregnant, and silent except to call their husbands for dinner. It’s about patterns of actions made by the sex that took control of society ages ago and ever since has plodded along, crafting laws and rules that prioritize their own wants and needs without considering things from women’s point of view (or being overly concerned with meeting women’s needs if they conflict with their own). It’s not necessarily (though it may sometimes be!) the result of overt machinations; it’s the product of centuries’ worth of structuring that leaves women at a disadvantage. In any case, a religion that values a clump of cells, which may never even make it to a live birth (at least 10-25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and many more result in fetuses that will never be viable outside the womb) above the physical and emotional health of a fully alive woman seems pretty sinister to me. If a woman being forced to carry and give birth to a fetus (even if it kills her, or even if it never stood a chance of living outside the womb) isn’t subjugating a woman–I don’t know what is. Likewise does it seem sinister for any religion to use flagrant lies about the health effects of abortion and birth control and shock/emotionally exploitative tactics to scare people away from thinking critically about these issues.

    Finally, it just strikes me as terrible that we might allow a religion’s ideas, based on shoddy science, to overrule the rights of people to basic health care (a definition decided upon by medical professionals and others who are actually qualified to make such assessments). The Catholic Church might whine about what the federal government is forcing them to do with their money, but then I expect that they would tell me to shut up when I voiced my anger over, say, my tax dollars being spent to line the coffers of the big agriculture companies that are decimating our ecosystems. Fortunately, I can point to tangible evidence of ugly realities resulting from my money being spent in this way. All the Catholics have is their entirely opinion-based claim that life starts at fertilization; those whose lives are complicated or damaged by lack of access to birth control be damned. Why should the Catholics get their way here?

    • Wonderfully put! Thank you for articulating many of my opinions more coherently than I would have.

    • Yes, yes, all of these things.

      Especially the fact that it doesn’t take conscious intent for something to be oppressive.

      Being unable to do as much as possible to mitigate the risk pregnancy and then to carry a pregnancy to term poses many health risks (for example, a recent study even suggests that safe, legal abortion–admittedly not quite what we’re talking about here, but still–is safer than childbirth), frequently makes working difficult or impossible, and generally tends to take over in a way that a person should not need to contend with unless they decide for themselves that they want to do so.

      If someone has to drastically change their life because their insurance doesn’t appropriately or adequately cover contraceptives (and let’s get real here: a huge chunk of people who work for or are otherwise associated with Catholic employers/institutions are not Catholic–it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that many non-Catholic college students still go to Catholic schools for curricular or financial or whatever reason, or that someone looking for a non-religious job, such as in support services or even as a professor might take a job at a Catholic school because it’s the best offer they can find) yet they have the gall to enjoy an adult sex life, if they lose control over the course of their life simply because they have a uterus–that’s a problem and is unacceptable.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head with these points. I do have on question, and I ask this in a non-sarcastic manner because I haven’t really thought about this much (pro-choice Catholic….whoops), but what about the constitutionality? Danielle does raise a good point about that. The argument could reasonably be made that by forcing someone to pay for something that is against their religion could be unconstitutional; and we aren’t talking about a small minor thing here, but one of the holy of holies of Catholicism/Christianity. I want to hear your thoughts.

      • Here’s a very extreme example but an applicable one nonetheless.
        Deuteronomy 13:6-9 gives clear examples of when it is okay to stone your family to death. Technically, according to “religious law” this is okay. According to federal/state law this is illegal. Federal and state law take precedent. You could argue (albeit unsuccessfully) that stopping you from killing your family suppresses your religious freedom. Please don’t kill me for citing the old testament.
        Also check out what Joseph Hagedorn said farther down.

  6. Be careful about allowing religion to rule the land.

    One of the fastest growing religions is Islam and it’s not inconceivable that in 50-75 years Islam would be a dominant religion in the US.

    You want Sharia law and fatwas to take precedence over public policy?

    The groundwork you lay today for Catholics and Christian evangelicals could be for Islamic Mullahs tomorrow.

  7. “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices.”

    Reynolds versus the US.

  8. I don’t appreciate the issue of my access to basic health care needs being tossed aside to focus on the so-called “bigger picture”, that of religious freedom in this country. I don’t care that my desire to have sex without desiring to get pregnant makes the Catholic Church shiver with repulsion. What I do and who I do with my genitals is my own business. Furthermore, how I choose to protect my body — be it pill, implant, ring, etc — is my own damn business.
    Mitt Romney oscillates between supporting birth control and condemning birth control on an almost daily basis, putting his foot in his mouth, so I don’t too much care what he has to say on this matter.
    And none of that nonsense about children being “gifts” and all life is “sacred”. Appealing to fluffy emotions and silky bassinets doesn’t change the fact that children born of poorer working-class families, single parent homes, inner-city, go ignored. No one cares abut the mothers who had them. Instead the mothers, oftentimes poorer and of color, are painted as well-fare queens. Life is “sacred” but what about the quality of that life? I don’t want my baby borne into a broken education system, a shitty economy, shitty healthcare — into a world in which it is difficult enough to fend for just myself.
    Conservatives and the super religious right would say the responsible thing is to keep my legs closed — I’ll do the responsible thing and stay on my pill.

  9. You’re missing the point–No one’s telling you what to do with your body. They’re just asking that you don’t force the Catholic Church to fund it.

    • I feel like I’m stating the obvious and that it won’t help, but I’ll do it anyway because I’m terrible at letting things stand.

      1. No one thinks that anyone’s being given explicit instructions, necessarily. The implications are the issue, not that there’s someone actually standing next to someone at the pharmacy and blocking them from getting the pill.

      2. I don’t think that the overall argument of the article is difficult to grasp and I even think that everyone who’s commented understands it, so I’m not sure what the point is in pointing out that it is against mandating that the Catholic Church pay for full health care coverage.

    • The catholic institutions are not being forced to do any such thing. They can refuse and lose federal funding, simple as that.

  10. @ Sarah–I agree. The arguments of the article aren’t all that difficult to grasp. But 69 makes it out as if the Catholic Church is trying to confiscate her personal contraception. She can go ahead and work at a non-Catholic employer if she so chooses. Also, I object to the sacredness of human life being dismissed as “fluffy.”

    There’s no right to free contraception, but there is a liberty for the free exercise of religion….

    • @ Thatcherh

      Whether 69 can get a job at a non-Catholic employer is besides the point–what is the point is that someone who cannot find a job elsewhere would have to shoulder the cost of basic preventive healthcare that has been determined by experts to be part of a basic standard.

      There’s quite a huge chunk of the population that cannot simply “choose” their employer. Many people take whatever job they can find.

  11. This is a very interesting article considering that my mother works at a Catholic school as a theology teacher. I am covered by my mother’s insurance and have a prescription for birth control as does my sister. The Catholic Church permits use of contraceptives for non birth control reasons. Only God will know why you use them or so they say. Since the Catholic Church promotes/accepts the use of bcps I don’t understand why this is even a problem.

  12. Catholic hospitals, charities, and universities all receive federal funding. It’s the federal funding that allows dictation of services offered regardless of religious beliefs.

    Federal funding is optional.

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