Birth Control Debate: Why Catholic Bishops Have Lost Their Grip on U.S. Politics—and Their Flock

COMMENTARY

The Vatican’s timing was ironic. While Roman Catholic bishops in the U.S. were trying to revive their moral and political clout last week by battling President Obama over contraception coverage and religious liberty, a papally endorsed symposium was underway in Rome on how the Church has to change if it wants to prevent sexual abuse crises, the very tragedy that has shriveled the stature of Catholic prelates worldwide over the past decade, especially in the U.S. One monsignor at the Vatican gathering even suggested the hierarchy had been guilty of “omertà,” the Mafia code of silence, by protecting abusive priests.

The Roman forum was a reminder—and the birth control clash is turning out to be one as well — of just how much influence the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has lost in the 10 years since the abuse crisis erupted in America. It hopes that its protest of a new federal rule requiring religiously affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals and universities to provide no-cost contraception in their health insurance coverage, even if church doctrine forbids birth control, will help restore the bishops’ relevance. They did win a partial victory last Friday when Obama, acknowledging the uproar, said those institutions would no longer have to pay for the contraception coverage themselves. But the President did not fully genuflect: The compromise will still oblige religious-based employers to offer the coverage, while their insurance providers foot the bill.

Although major Catholic groups like Catholic Charities and Catholic Health Services accepted that revision, the bishops are holding out for more. But their crusade to be exempted from the mandate is likely to fall short of its grail. If so, it’s because Obama read the Catholic flock better than its shepherds did.

Granted, the bishops, led by New York Archbishop and Cardinal-elect Timothy Dolan, did get the White House to acknowledge how high-handedly and ham-handedly it had managed the contraception debate—confirming along the way the public’s wariness of the so-called liberal elite—and convinced it to craft a deal that should have been policy in the first place. Yet in his refusal to cave completely to the religious liberty campaign, Obama has illustrated the reality that the bishops no longer speak for most U.S. Catholics—the nation’s largest religious denomination and a critical swing-voter group—on a host of moral issues, according to polls.

Not on abortion or the death penalty (a majority of Catholics believe those should remain legal); on divorce or homosexuality (most say those are acceptable); on women being ordained as priests and priests getting married (ditto); or on masturbation and pre-marital sex (ditto again, Your Excellencies).

And especially not on contraception. Ever since Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s senseless ban on birth control in 1968, few doctrines have been as vilified, ridiculed and outright ignored by Catholics – evidenced by a recent study showing that 98% of American Catholic women have used some form of contraception. It’s hard to believe, as the bishops would have it, that those women simply succumbed to society’s pressure to do the secular thing. They’ve decided, in keeping with their faith’s precept of exercising personal conscience, that family planning is the moral and societally responsible thing to do—for example, preventing unwanted pregnancies and therefore abortions. And it explains why a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found most Catholics support the contraception coverage mandate even for Catholic-affiliated organizations. Presumably most endorse Friday’s compromise.

Far more Evangelical Protestants, according to the PRRI survey, back the bishops than Catholics do. But that hardly makes the bishops, when it comes to the more independent Catholic vote, the same force to be reckoned with that they were in the 20th century. That is, before 2002 and the horror stories of how prelates like Cardinal Bernard Law, then Boston’s archbishop, had serially shielded alleged pedophile priests. It’s true that some bishops, like Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl, confronted rather than coddled accused priests. But when it became clear that so many of the men in miters cared more about safeguarding the clerical corporation than about protecting kids, episcopal “authority” vanished like so much incense smoke—and Catholics increasingly abandoned the 2,000-year-old notion that their church and their religion are the same thing.

That’s essentially what Catholics like me are asking for, especially from my colleagues in the media, during episodes like the contraception and religious liberty fracas: Stop equating what the bishops say with what we think, because we’re not the obedient, monolithic bloc that newspapers and cable news networks so tiresomely insist is in “jeopardy” for this or that party whenever they smell church-state friction. When a hardline U.S. bishop calls for withholding communion from a Catholic politician who supports legalized abortion, stop assuming all Catholics have the prelate’s back rather than the pol’s. When Catholic politicians draft legislation like the religious liberty bills popping up on Capitol Hill right now, stop accepting their assertion that the birth-control ban is “a major tenet” of Catholic faith, as Florida Senator Marco Rubio called it this month. For the vast majority of Catholics, it isn’t.

And for that matter, stop forgetting that in the 2008 election, 54% of Catholic voters ignored their bishops and backed a pro-choice presidential candidate like Obama. I certainly don’t point that out as some kind of endorsement of Obama in 2012. I’m simply noting that pundits and politicians need smarter criteria for gauging the Catholic vote—just as advisers in Obama’s White House shouldn’t have been so clueless about religious issues when they first decreed the contraception mandate. If the tragedy of the 2002 abuse crisis reminds us of anything, it’s that religion does matter in politics. Just ask the church leaders who are still paying a political price for their religious code of silence.

Complete Article HERE!

Catholic church stance on contraception policy speaks to subordination of women

COMMENTARY

The squabble over whether Catholic social service institutions, universities and hospitals must offer insurance covering contraception under the new health plan contains a subplot with roots deep in history.

It’s the relationship between women and organized religion — a relationship that, over the centuries, has been hostile to the aspirations of women for a larger role in the family, the world and religion itself.
A little history is needed here.

Women — as well as men — have, through the ages, experienced the same spiritual stirrings that give rise to faith and firm religious beliefs. But organized religion, with its churches, synagogues, mosques, feasts and rituals, has, from the beginning, been exclusively the creation of men.

Moreover, the bureaucracies that have grown up to run these religions — and to promulgate their codes of moral right and wrong — have, from the beginning, been the work of men. Women had little or no say in this overarching influence in their lives.

Here’s one conservative religious view of woman’s role as expressed by A.H. Strong, president of the Rochester Theological Seminary, in a mid-19th century essay: “She is subject to man,” he wrote. “She is to be helper, not principal. Man has preference in creation, woman is made of man and to supply the felt needs of man.” (How nice for man.)

Even in the modern world, women occupy a subordinate role. Some fundamentalist or ultra-orthodox sects even prohibit women from worshiping in the same room with men. In some Islamic lands, women can’t leave home unless accompanied by a male relative, a rule enforced by “religious police.”
Organized religion, in short, has been a clerical stag party.

It is against this historical background that the tussle between what religious conservatives see as a First Amendment right and many women see as a health issue will be played out over contraceptive coverage.

The marginalization of women is just one characteristic of most major religions. The other, in one degree or another, is authoritarianism. They are not democratic institutions.

Their leaders don’t care much for doctrinal dissent. And they have a point. Why should they give any heed to dissent if they believe they’re following the divine will, that they’re doing God’s work? How can they be wrong?

In centuries past, dissent was punished by imprisonment, torture, even death. The Gnostics, who broke from Catholicism in its early days, were persecuted for several heresies, including a belief that women were, in God’s great plan, the equal of men. (Whatever gave them that idea?)

Some extreme Islamic sects still stone women to death even today, especially for adultery. (Men get a pass on this one.) Similar punishments are meted out by some Hindu extreme fundamentalists.

Something about women having sex for the sheer joy of it seems to unhinge the ultrareligious mind, even here in the West where things are better for women but not exactly benign.

Which brings us to the dust-up over requiring religious organizations to pay for contraception despite their doctrinal objection.

Opposition to contraception in this scientific age seems medieval. Maybe so, but it’s a matter of religious freedom and belief, the Catholic bishops insist. It’s also a political issue for the church.

The Catholic church must oppose contraception if it’s to keep faith with its true believers, especially women who have lived by that rule for generations despite the hardship it often imposed. This is the church’s most devoted constituency — its base, so to speak.

Trouble is, even Catholic leaders know a majority of Catholic women today violate the contraception ban. They’ve seen the polls. And they must appreciate that widespread scorning of this rule can ultimately undermine clerical credibility on other religious matters, especially with the church’s younger, more questioning adherents. But the bishops are trapped in church history.

The Obama administration’s handling of the issue was incredibly clumsy and insensitive. Therefore, it owed bishops a way out, which it tried to do with an about-face Friday on its contraception insurance edict. For their part, the bishops, like conservative clergy in all religions, have got to get off the dime and begin bringing women into the dialogue about dogma.

This is a clash that never should have happened. Then again, considering how organized religion has historically ignored or marginalized women, maybe it had to happen.

Complete Article HERE!