By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
Last Sunday, most U.S. Catholics heard a letter read from the pulpit imploring them to oppose the Obamacare provision requiring most healthcare plans to cover contraceptive services for women. The reason given was that Catholic hospitals and universities would have to “shutter their doors” in order to avoid heresy and be true to the faith. As part of the concerted effort, the chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty announced that the Obama administration’s requirement goes against “the mandate of Jesus Christ.” Even though the earthly mandate contains an exemption for purely religious organizations, the all-male U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is clearly on the offensive in this politically charged debate about women, privacy, and the right of families to decide for themselves the number of children they can support.
Since the 1930s, most denominations have left the issue of contraception up to the conscience of the parishioners. The Catholic Church has stood virtually alone since 1951 by requiring its adherents to use only the “rhythm method” as a means to prevent pregnancy. All other forms of contraception were deemed an interference in God’s Plan and hence heretical. In the early 1960s with the reforms of Vatican II in full swing, the Pope appointed a 90 person committee to evaluate the Church’s position on contraception. 75 of the 90 recommended the Church allow contraception by means other than the rhythm method.
Disregarding the recommendation, Pope Paul VI issued his famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church’s solitary position. The Pope reasoned that, “The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” The Pope then waxed philosophic about the danger of government mandated contraception akin to that seen in China:
Careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.
That textual cudgel has now been taken up against Obamacare. Catholic apologists like Jennifer Brinker in the St. Louis Review have argued that the Pope was right and the government is now in the business of pushing contraception for political reasons. Brinker even argues ironically that the mandate is a “dissolution of freedom.” Brinker reminds Catholics that disapproved contraception is a “sin” and that most Catholics don’t understand the reason for the ban.
What do Catholic women think about the Church’s unyielding stand on artificial birth control? In April of last year, Reuters reported that a Guttmacher Institute poll showed that 98% of sexually active U.S. Catholic women used contraception methods outside of the Church’s teachings. The numbers held up for women who regularly attended Catholic services as well as those who didn’t. In fact, the findings showed American Catholic women were just as likely to use artificial contraception as those in other denominations.
“In real-life America, contraceptive use and strong religious beliefs are highly compatible,” said the report’s lead author Rachel Jones. Catholics overwhelmingly rely on the most common methods of birth control. Nearly 70 percent of Catholic women use sterilization, the birth control pill or an IUD, according to the Guttmacher Institute research.
What then are we to make of the schism between Church’s dogma and the reality of its followers? Are 98% of the Church’s women sinners and heretics? Can a religion be viable if one of its fundamental tenets is ignored on a daily basis by almost all of its “faithful”? Can a male dominated authority maintain credibility in the modern world when it dictates to women on issues that are overwhelmingly that gender’s concern?
These questions do not seem to be troubling Church fathers. In fact, they appear to be looking for a testosterone fueled showdown. As one recently said, “We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law.” They may do well to look over their shoulders as they climb up that political hill, theological banners flying. A cursory view of their ranks will likely find few honest Americans and almost no honest women.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger