The politics of Catholic opposition to birth control

The confrontation between the bishops and the White House over coverage contraception in all health plans has not ended with … Continued

The confrontation between the bishops and the White House over coverage contraception in all health plans has not ended with the president’s announced resolution of the conflict on February 10th. The issue is both theological and political, but neither bishops nor politicians are usually adept at both. It is possible to be a great bishop in theological terms but also a lousy politician, just as good politicians can lack the basics of theology.

What is the political side? Led by Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York as president of the USCCB, the bishops announced in the fall of 2011 that they would launch a huge campaign and lobbying effort to protect religious liberty which they said was “under attack.” “Religious liberty” is a Karl Rovian, focus-group substitute for “opposing same-sex marriage,” “killing stem cell research,” “dismissing gays from the military,” etc. and constitutes what political gurus call “framing.” All of these mirror positions identified with the Republican party and the evangelical right-wing. Adopting the framing of “religious liberty,” the bishops sought influence in the 2012 presidential election. And in many cases, they found candidates eager to denounce Obama’s so-called “war on religion.” You don’t need to be a political insider to recognize that this strategy is intended to push Catholics toward the Republican party.

Many Catholics asked why the lobbying effort did not include other moral issues, like income disparity, for instance. Millions around the globe already had picked up this injustice in the Occupy Movements and would find echo in Vatican pronouncements. Including both religious liberty and economic injustice in bishops’ lobbying, I think, would have questioned the ideology of both political parties, and thus have put the bishops in non-partisan mode. Instead, the bishops pushed a full-throated campaign that was inescapably anti-Obama.

Then the bishops sat down with the president and asked him to do them a favor by giving their not-for-profit institutions a carte blanche exemption from including birth control as preventive medicine! I don’t know if the president raised the issue of the lobbying effort against him as a quid-pro-quo; perhaps he assumed the bishops were smart enough to realize that in the political arena that is the way things work. But I also presume that the bishops had no intention of any compromise: think Speaker of the House John Boehner shouting “Hell no you can’t!”

Even if the president would have given this concession to the bishops personally, they still intended to oppose him with their million dollar lobby. But the exemption to Catholics would have angered the Democratic base that sees birth control as women’s health. Obama would have ended up losing support from the left while still getting attacked from the bishops. The reaction against the Komen Foundation from women’s groups protesting any defunding of screenings for breast cancer, suggests the president understands political currents better than the bishops.

With his Friday announcement, the president “thread the needle” by sustaining both birth control coverage for all women as preventive medicine and relieved religious institutions of the need to pay for it. This was never a surprising outcome; after all, 28 states had already reached accommodation with the Catholic Church on some type of provision. The swift resolution was the novel element, in advance of the year initially left by the HHS for such negotiations. .

The controversy should be over. But I believe the intention for some bishops was never about cooperation with the Obama: it was always about thwarting his reelection. The USCCB general counsel, Anthony Picarello insists no employer be bound to offer birth control coverage in the US. This stance suggests continued opposition from the bishops. Indeed, a statement late Friday suggests that this battle will go on. I fear some prelates, like the bishop of Peoria, are inclined to wrap themselves in the banner of victimization by secularism rather than work with President Obama. Nonetheless, it remains “lousy politics” to announce you are going to shut down all Catholic hospitals unless you get 100 percent of what you demand. Like the-boy-who-cried-wolf, you may be forced to immolate yourself (and all Catholics) in the name of theology rather than operate politically.

As he did with the House Republicans in the debt ceiling fight, President Obama’s compromised with the bishops on the payment issue, but stood firm on women’s access to contraception. Despite the vitriol spewed at him, he may eventually look like the adult in the room.

Next week: The Theology of Catholic cooperation with governments

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Anthony Stevens-Arroyo is an On Faith blogger.

  • frankyburns

    These bishops are TOO hypocritical — to think that of all things the big thing weighing on their consciences is whether their women workers are using insurance for contraception. I just don’t believe it. They are just trying to make themselves look persnickety and good, but really coming off as silly.

  • frankyburns

    These bishops are TOO hypocritical — to think that of all things the big thing weighing on their consciences is whether their women workers are using insurance for contraception. I just don’t believe it. They are just trying to make themselves look persnickety and good, but really coming off as silly.

  • fitzwilliam

    how is this for moderation: if you don’t want the birth control – don’t use it.

    These bishops need to spend a little bit more time cleaning up their own scandal ridden house before they start claiming some hollier-than-thou position .

  • JakeS2

    Hate much Mr. Stevens-Arroyo? The venom is splashed over the whole post.

    Lets set out the facts – the fallout is a result of the foolhardy effort by the Obama administration to characterize sterilization and the morning-after abortion pill as “preventive medicine.” Yes, the rule also covers birth control.

    The United States is so corrupt that it now seeks to “prevent” childbirth under the guise of preventive medicine. Pregnancy and childbirth is not a disease nor a disorder. It is natural.

    As a Catholic I resent that others are attempting to force their morals on me and require that I pay for sterilizations and morning-after abortions against my conscience. This is a religious liberty issue.

    This is the beginning of many such confrontations. It is what happens when government forces its citizens to buy a health insurance product.

  • michaelrobinson99

    Wow…I am amazed at people’s total lack of knowledge about religion, the constitution and health benefits.

    1) Since when is religion confined to ones house and church. The entire foundation of religious and moral views is to be a guide to the world. I am not aware of a single religion that is based on keeping one’s beliefs to yourself and not trying to positively change the world. The whole idea that people of faith (this is not just a Catholic issue…45,000 other chruches share the bishop’s concerns about religious freedom) cannot share their faith or are limited by the government in the pieces of faith they share is simply insane.

    2) Unfortunately, the topic of concern in most people’s mind is contraception. But the reality is that this is indeed a constitutional issue. The best line I have seen is that “you don’t walk into a Jewish deli and mandate that they serve pork.” Admittedly, there are pieces of every religion people don’t agree with, even its own faithful…drinking, contraception, fasting, etc. The fact of the matter is that the government has no right mandating against people’s moral beliefs, unless those beliefs (e.g. killing people) otherwise violate the Constitution.

    3) Health insurance is just that, insurance. Your auto insurance company does not pay for new brakes or new tires to help you stay out of an accident. The idea that contraceptives is preventative medicine under a health insurance plan is insane at the outset. Health insurance, in an employment setting, is a benefit, not a right. All employers (not just churches) should have the right to provide insurance benefits to their employees at the level required to attract and retain employees. I worked for a company that did not cover certain pharmaceuticals, including some narcotic pain killers. Were they discriminating against people with migranes? Nope…the identified a health plan that was affordable for them to provide, while being sufficient to attract and retain employees.

  • Professor11

    Here I was listening to a group on cable discussing the birth control and the Catholic Church. The bishop in the group was adamant that government’s birth control mandate violated the freedom of the Church. Everyone seemed nodding in agreement that the freedom of the Church was at stake. I smiled as I wondered how such group of seemingly intelligent people could get trapped in such moronic dialogue. Note by “moronic” I mean humans with very limited knowledge processing capability.
    Why is a discussion of “freedom of the Church” moronic? Because freedom is characteristic of the human individual and not the organizations humans make and use. The organizations humans make and use can enhance or restrict the human individual’s freedom but have no intrinsic freedom by themselves. Think about it. Consider humans organizing themselves for transportation. There are cars and roads and various rules and regulations for using the car on the road. For example, on roads I travel, my freedom to go faster than 65 miles per hour is restricted. In that setting if I claim that adding a new lane to the highway would violate the “freedom of the road,” everyone would quickly recognize I am engaging in a moronic dialogue. The road has no inherent freedom. It is a human-made thing that enhances or limits the human individual’s freedom.
    From this perspective the Church is no different than the automobile. In the same manner that the automobile cannot claim an inherent freedom that can be violated, nor can the Church. The Church is a human-made organization that only enhances or restricts the freedom of the individual that uses it. The discussion of any aspect of the Church must therefore be at how the human individual’s freedom is being affected, for if we change the tone and start to speak in terms of the “freedom of the Church,” we are only engaging in moronic dialogue from which the human will benefit little.

  • vtavgjoe

    This movement, Rovian is an excellent word, by the supposed leaders of the Catholic church in the US, is making me seriously reconsider my 30+ year (all my life) commitment to the Catholic church. When there are so many needs in the world, so many places where light has an opportunity to outshine the darkness, if only for the help of a few good souls to help out, these “leaders” choose to put millions of dollars in church resources into a mission whose primary purpose is to keep themselves relevant in election year politics. Matthew 25 says to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, etc., I don’t see closing down hospitals or insurance paperwork anywhere in that list.

  • JosephD1000

    Excellent work Mr. Stevens-Arroyo, in pointing out the obviously political nature of the bishops’ machinations in this regard. Hopefully it will raise the question of why we allow tax-exempt organizations to lobby for political change, at the expense of the democratic expression and allegedly inalienable rights of citizens. In other words, that tax-payers at large subsidize special interest agendas at the expense of tax-payers liberty. Complicating the bishop’s position are a few rather salient points. Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world, and about contraception Jesus said nothing, so their position seems to be politically motivated, not surprisingly, when it comes to women. Religion and relegation of women to lesser status than men seem to be synonymous. Lobbying to affect policy seems to contradict their own handbook, luckily the founding fathers provided protection against this meddling. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be working that well lately.

  • JosephD1000

    in reponse:

    1. Jesus clearly stated that his kingdom was not of this world and render unto caesar and so on to clearly indicate his teachings were in regard to the inner spiritual journey, not a handbook on how to create a worldly christian empire, or legislate his views.

    2. The constitutional issue is discrimination. No outrage over viagra but that’s no surprise since it’s female orgasms which irk the male-dominated religious community.

    If the issue is decided, as it should be, on the constitutional protection of the rights of individuals, against impairment by corporations, on any grounds, then the rest of your point is irrelevant to the isue at hand.

  • mm14

    Likewise, I am furious with the Church. Took me years post-Confirmation to reconcile my childhood view of the Church with the realities of the Reformation and Inquisition. Then it took many more years to forgive the pedophilia scandal. Now the Church is playing politics? On contraception? The bishop’s moral authority is notably more mute on matters of civilian killings in Afghanistan and Iraq, on the need to insure the poor, and many more pressing issues of social justice. The power-drunk bishops are making me rethink Catholicism once again– the Episcopalian church is more aligned with my theology.

  • usapdx

    The right of religious freedom is from WE THE PEOPLE by our supreme law, the Constitution, not by any religion what so ever. No religion can ever take a right away from any American period. The right of conscience is only a human thought.

  • usapdx

    There is nothing wrong with the RC religion. The problem is the RCC ADMINISTRATION that has done great damage to the RCC. The silence of the truth to protect the image is totally wrong. RCs will bring change by voting with their feet as they have in Europe and else where. And they thought moveable type was bad.

  • usapdx

    Those that speak against birth control, what will they say in 2050 with nine billion people that earth will not be able to feed all? What power does a human have other than Christ to make a rule if violated is a sin? No person or group can take a right away from any American without change of our supreme law, the Constitution of WE THE PEOPLE.

  • plattitudes

    Despite your 3 being called irrelevant by the previous commentor, I think this is the much-overlooked crux of the issue. Under the guise of “preventative care,” President Obama has told women that they are entitled to birth control medications, but (as my Economist friends like to say) TANSTAAFL. There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Someone’s got to foot the bill. At first it was Employers, but then some employers fought back claiming religious conscience. Now President Obama is pushing the buck to insurance companies.

    If this were to fly, insurance companies would simply raise their premiums (in spite of the legislated ban to do so). They couldn’t raise premiums above other policies for fear of being seen as raising premiums, so they will increase their premiums on all plans enough to recover the cost. Meaning that you and I and everyone else they insure will now be contributing for this ‘preventative care’ for those at Catholic and other religious establishments via our own insurance costs.

  • usapdx

    But if they do not toll the Vatican line, they will not be a bishop for long.

  • Professor11

    The assignment of freedom is an assignment of choice-making. If the human is the one declared free, then he or she is a choice-maker. But what if we make the organizations “free”? Then they become the choice-makers and the human is turned into a “thing.” Assume we declare the automakers “free” and they say that an automobile can only be used from 8 to 10 am and no other time. They say that the use of the automobile in any other time would violate the freedom of automakers. With that the choice-making takes place at the organization and the human becomes a thing. Note the role reversal. The organization that is to respond to human choice turns the human into a thing and forces him or her to respond to the choices of the organization.
    The same phenomenon takes place when the Catholic Church declares itself “free” and thus a choice-maker. With that every Catholic becomes a thing that has to adjust to the Church’s choice-making. Don’t get me wrong. The organization, be it the Catholic Church, the government, the business, or the university must adjust to the choices that humans make and not the other way around. The choice-maker must remain the human individual. It is intriguing that this simple yet fundamental principle of human life is fully understood in the marketplace. Every producer of goods and services constantly adjusts its products to match the choices that the individual makes. Yet, when it comes to things like religion, government, or education, humans and organizations seem to forget this principle and instead strive to make the organization the choice-maker and in the process harm and at times destroy the human individual as the choice-maker.

  • nkri401

    “good politicians can lack the basics of theology. ‘

    Wht shoud good, bad or non-politicians subsribe Catholic theology any more than voodoo theology?

  • gregorynorfleet

    This column would have a greater impact — and different conclusions — if the writer realized that the Obama administration’s position and that of the Catholic church are not equal.
    When we’re talking about freedom of religion, we must realize that those who feel compelled to follow a particular religion do so because of a belief in eternal consequences; while those who wish to have access to birth control only need to look as far as the end of their mortal life.
    Asking the church to compromise in this fashion is like asking them to condone, and even assist, in something like this is like asking the church to ignore their God. What you consider compromise, they consider blasphemy.
    Of course they are going to fight.

  • cricket44

    Dying from pregnancy and childbirth is “natural,” too and still happens, even in the US. But I guess, Jake, since it is a risk you don’t face, it’s immaterial.

    What “morals?” I’ve not seen any in your post.

  • usapdx

    And how much freedom does the RCC give their members? Their game plan is control by way of guilt seeking forgiveness “through the administration of the church” in the confessional box Saturday 4:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m..

  • ccnl1

    Dear President Obama,

    What can you do to at least lift part of the Immoral Majority leader label?
    You say abortions should be “safe, legal and rare” but says nothing about the basic tenet of proper human conduct i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill. And where is your sense of indignation that abortions are not rare and that these acts of horror demean the Golden Rule considering that you say you are a Christian. And where is your sense of indignation that women who use the Pill do not use it properly resulting in an failure rate of 8.7% as per the Guttmacher Institute statistics. Using these and other Guttmacher Institute data, this failure of women to use the Pill properly results in 1,000,000 unplanned pregnancies every year. And the annual abortion rate in the USA is?? ~1,000,000 as per the CDC.

    And do males use co-ndoms properly? No, as said failure rate for this birth “control” method is 17.4%!! Again using Guttmacher data, said failure rate results in another ~1,000,000 unplanned pregnancies every year.

    Bottom line: You are still not aware of the basics of birth control and still remain the leader of the Immoral Majority and will remain so until you become a true Christian and one who respects and protects human life in all its forms and who at least emphasizes the proper use of birth control methods!!!

  • persiflage

    ‘The confrontation between the bishops and the White House over coverage contraception in all health plans has not ended with the president’s announced resolution of the conflict on February 10th. The issue is both theological and political, but neither bishops nor politicians are usually adept at both.’

    The 800 pound gorilla in this debate is the fact that US Bishops take their marching orders from the Vatican, and the most outspoken Bishop of the bunch is shortly being confirmed as a new Red Hat, or Cardinal……..a rare and prestigious high office in the Catholic Church – about as political a move as being nominated for sainthood. The Church has had 2000 years of practice, so we can assume they’re pretty adept at politics, whether religious or secular.

    In fact, I think the Church hierarchy is completely attuned to the convenient and mutually beneficial political usury employed by both the Church and the GOP – as we are currently seeing in this entirely trumped up, hyperbolic debate about ‘the violation of 1st amendment rights’ that surrounds the contraception issue. The timing couldn’t better.

  • persiflage

    All the inflated blustering over birth control so closely replicates our current republican behavior in congress on every issue that we should be used to it by now.

    Upon closer scrutiny, this is a tempest in a teapot and not truly a theological or constitutional issue . The Church and the GOP are looking for political leverage – and that about sums it up.

    Catholics as individuals will continue to follow their own conscience, and will continue to use conventional birth control at their discretion as they have for the last 50 years or more. The GOP favors large corporations in everything they do, and the Catholic Church is a corporation, and run like any other top down corporation with a CEO, CFO, board of directors, corporate hierarchy, battery of lawyers, and all the rest.

  • Americacares

    Our bishops are pushing us to the Left. Not to the right. They are out of touch with us again. And again they do not have clean hands….see news today regarding Philly rape cases. They have lost their ability to lead us effectively 30 years ago and it is worse today. Euopeans gave up on their Bishops long ago…America is there nowl. Our Church will remain strong because of the lay people despite the Bishops.

  • Americacares

    Will the Church excommuncate all Catholic men that have Vasectomys? If they are serious than they should go for it! This is an example of their ignorance. Birthcontrol is not abortion!