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.

3 comments:

Charlie said...

How do you feel about fair trade, unions, minimum wage, and the like Ryan?

The problem as I see it is that the Catholic Church wants to have influence on decisions the government makes, but as soon as the government starts to influence how it, as a private organization, treats its employees, it gets all in a tizzy.

The church would fight to not allow fair and equal treatment of gay couples by the federal government, but as soon as the federal government tells it that it must treat women's reproductive rights a certain way, it gets all upset.

I'm asking for consistency in how the church deals with political, social problems. If it wants to influence the gov't, it should expect reverse influence. If it wishes to be left alone, it should leave the gov't alone.

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

Hi Charlie,

I think a few things have to be kept in mind. The Church, like any other corporation in the United States, has a stake in the country and its policies. Corporations and lobbies, as we know only too well, lobby to get their point or to advance their agenda. If the role of government is to secure and foster the Common Good for its citizens, I think it only responsible of any institution to weigh in and contribute to what it sees as constitutive of that good.

The issue is not of reproductive rights. As I said, I really do believe that it is this is governmental interference with an institution and its self-understanding. I should hope that were this another situation, say where the government told Catholic hospitals that it could no longer give treatment to illegal immigrants, that the bishops would react in a similar way. The religious call to treat the "widow, orphan, and alien" would be core to the identity of the institution and a part of what it means to be a Catholic hospital, whether the government wished for it to act in such a way or not.

Alexis said...

I think you're right to a certain extent, that the issue is: does the government have the right to dictate any aspect of how a religion institution acts at all? However, examples that have been cited where religious institutions/persons follow (or have been, by rule of law, "dictated" to follow) government mandate are health care coverage for employees from Christian Scientist institutions, Jehovah's Witnesses paying tax that benefits the military (and requiring to serve when there's a draft), and Mormons not being able to engage in polygamy. Also, I believe Catholic hospitals receive government funding - by your argument, since the institution is taking money from a certain "culture", does it mean that it is agreeing to work within that (secular) culture? Is there really no point when a secular law/"right" can impinge upon a religious institution/person, despite the social contract that exists by the religious institution/person being part of that society?

Not that there are easy answers to these, because there are arguments that can paint either extreme situation. So, that people are framing this about the particular instant of contraception itself, rather than the broader notion of religious freedom, I think is understandable and necessary - is contraception a means to a "right" for women, and can this right be achieved without it? The conversation about the limits of government/religious freedom also needs to be there, but the conversation about the particular case is not unimportant.