Monday, February 13, 2012

Missing the Point?

Generally, I am pretty quiet about politics given that (1) it is incendiary and (2) the issues are generally too intricate and complicated for me to do justice in a blog post someone will read.

Today, however, an editorial in Time Magazine written by Tim Padgett caught my eye. Entitled "Birth Control Debate: Why Catholic Bishops Have Lost Their Grip on U.S. Politics - and Their Flock," Padgett's piece seems, to my mind, to miss the entire point of the Bishops' stand against the HHSC mandate that religiously-affiliated institutions had to provide contraception to its employees. The Obama Administration has granted concessions that have been accepted by Catholic Charities and the Catholic Healthcare Association. These concessions, however, have not appeased the bishops.

So let me say this very quickly (I have to teach in 8 minutes). I think we get this whole affair wrong and view it in a distorted manner if it is viewed as a debate about contraception. Journalists love to trot out the statistic that 97-98% of Catholic women use birth control. That's not the issue at all. The issue is whether the government can dictate to a religious institution how it proceeds. In a sense, the question at hand is whether the government can insert itself into the very identity and, possibly, mission of a religious institution.

Here is where I think the bishops are failing. In their - to my mind, correct - efforts to preserve religious liberty, they have allowed the conversation to be framed around contraception and abortion. They must, if they are going to carry this, re-establish that the conversation we are having is about religious liberty, about religiously affiliated institutions being able to operate according to their mission statements and in accordance with their founding principles. The issue is not about prophylactics but, rather, procedure.

I think one thing that should be recalled is that, if you take a job at a Catholic hospital or school, you are agreeing to work within a corporate culture. You may not like it, you may not agree with it, but then again, no one forced you to work there. If you don't like the mission of the institution, or disagree wholly with its ethos, then perhaps it would be better for you not to work there. No one forces anyone to take a job in a Catholic hospital. Hence it is puzzling to me that individuals, who say that they want to exercise their freedom of conscience to use birth control, are trying to impose their wills on institutions.

Padgett's piece is a good reminder that the complexities of the issue are easily obscured by the hot-button nature of contraception. As I said, I simply do not think this is an issue born out of condoms or pills. It is, rather, establishing a bulwark against what is perceived as the expansion and interference of the government. If the bishops are wise, they will continue to bring out this point and start to explain how this is an effort to preserve religious freedom and why they see the stakes being so high.
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