Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On the Issue of Contraception, the Catholic Clerical Caste Does Not Speak for "the Church," Let Alone "Religion"

Peter Laird, the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, has an op-ed in the August 26, 2011 issue of the Star Tribune. It focuses on the adoption by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of a recommendation by the Institute of Medicine. As Laird points out, the adoption of this particular recommendation means that health care plans are now mandated to "cover contraceptives and sterilizations under regulations for preventive care." In other words, employer health insurance plans must now pay claims for birth control.

This is a "troubling" mandate for Laird. Why? Because the clerical caste of the Roman Catholic Church, of which Laird is a member and for which he speaks in an official capacity, "does not consider birth control a right of health care, much less a good for human flourishing."

What I actually find "troubling" is the headline the Star Tribune chose to give to Laird's op-ed: "Birth-Control Mandate Puts Religion in a Bind." Oh, really? Since when has the clerical caste of the Roman Catholic Church been elevated to represent all religion and all religious people? It's a stupid headline and the editorial board of the Star Tribune should have known better. It's not religion that's put in a "bind" but the Catholic clerical caste's teaching on contraception which, it should be noted, has been overwhelmingly rejected by the Catholic people and thus, one could say, the church as the people of God. Indeed, it would be more accurate to describe such teaching as "Vatican teaching" rather than "Catholic teaching."

Following are two letters-to-the-editor in response to Laird's piece and a number of comments that have been posted on the Star Tribune's website. They make for interesting reading!


The Rev. Peter A. Laird, a high official of the local Catholic archdiocese, wrote that "the position of the Catholic Church on artificial birth control is well-known, though not always well-understood."

My experience, compared to his, could not be more antithetical.

When Pope Paul VI proclaimed his birth-control letter in July 1968, married couples knew all too well what it meant. They were shocked by a celibate's unilateral rejection of his own Birth Control Commission.

They were hurt, too, by the insensitivity of the teaching, and by the cold, calculating failure to allow modern science to help them regulate the size of their families. They declared the teaching dead on arrival.

The birth-control letter has led millions to abandon the church of their childhood. Most who remain practice birth control with a free and clear conscience, and they wisely ignore sporadic efforts such as Laird's to resuscitate this lifeless doctrine.

– Ed Kohler
St. Paul

Laird argues that "to suggest that one may without consequence use contraception in pursuit of human flourishing is manifestly contradicted by studies such as the one reported by the Guttmacher Institute showing that 54 percent of women who have had abortions have been using birth control."

He omits the report's further observations that, of those 54 percent, 76 percent of pill users and 49 percent of condom users had failed to use them consistently; that about half of unintended pregnancies occur among the 11 percent of women who are at risk for unintended pregnancies but are not using contraceptives, and that U.S. women who are not using contraceptives consistently account for 95 percent of the unintended pregnancies that occur each year.

– James Gaffney
St. Paul

SeaShark writes: Religious objections to the new standards are irrelevant; America is thankfully not a theocracy. The health plan's religious exemption is sufficient, and if the Rev. Peter Laird's interpretation of the exemption clause is correct and the clause isn't rewritten, then the Catholic Church will simply have to make another adjustment to existing in a democratic nation. Laird's attempt to seize the moral high ground in this discussion is unpersuasive; the Church surrendered whatever moral authority it may have once had decades ago when it decided to protect Catholic clergy who were sexually abusing and often assaulting children. Religious organizations or individual churches that want to lobby against the new standards should refrain from doing so unless and until they inform the IRS in writing that they voluntarily and permanently surrender their tax exempt status. Insurance coverage should not be influenced by or based on religious dogma. People who object to birth control on religious grounds are free to conform their sexual behavior to their religious beliefs: live a chaste life before marriage and refrain from practicing birth control after marriage.

CrystalBay writes: . . . The church not only is tax-exempt, it receives help from the government. Making birth control available through health insurance in no way forces anyone to utilize it. If the church wants to forgo the help of the government and become entirely insulated from the rest of society, then go ahead, but it can't have it both ways.

Orpheus90 writes: Hospitals and universities that have a religious affiliation may serve people without regard to religious affiliation, but Laird conveniently overlooks the fact that these organizations are also largely administered, staffed and run by people without regard to religious affiliation as well. Hospitals and universities, to my knowledge, do not apply religious tests to their prospective employees, certainly not if these organizations wish to maintain professional standing. The mandate to make birth control services available through health care coverage is based on the recognition of the individual's autonomy to make such choices for themselves and NOT on the preferences of the employer. In fact, there is a clear hint of something ominously oligarchic behind Laird's thinking, which is really nothing more than a form of corporate absolutism: specifically, that the corporate entity alone should determine the health care options made available to those who work for them. My response: No sale, Reverend.

Dubblea writes: This government directive is not ordering Catholic clinics to dispense birth control. It is ordering employer health insurance plans to pay claims for contraception. Catholic organizations have lots of workers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, for whom they provide employee health benefits, evidently through insurers to whom this directive applies. Evidently they don't want their workers accessing benefits that they find to be anathema, whether the workers share in their beliefs or not. Now where our Padre has a point is that insurance claims are paid from members' contributions. So if he belongs to the same health care plan some itsy bitsy portion of his premium would in fact, shudder to think, be paying for some woman's birth control pills. Dang, talk about trying to micromanage what your money gets spent on. If he's that worried about indirectly paying for something immoral he should probably stop participating in the economy altogether. This one goes in the 'get a grip, or relax one' file.

This last commentator makes a really good point. The clerical caste isn't "troubled" in the least by the fact that, as U.S. taxpayers, we're all complicit in supporting and enabling a military-industrial complex that clearly runs counter to Jesus' example and call to be peacemakers. They've come up with all sorts of reasons to support militarism – and the charging of interest, another clear no-no from the earliest days of the Catholic tradition. And let's not forget the obscene wealth of the Vatican. How does that square with the simple life of Jesus of Nazareth and the egalitarian spirit of the early church?

Some argue that these types of "developments" are okay, and they'll cite all kinds of church decrees and documents to rationale them. One result is that you won't ever see anyone in a military uniform turned away from the Eucharistic table; not so anyone wearing a rainbow sash! (I'm not advocating the denying of Eucharist to military personnel, just highlighting our rather odd priorities when in comes to picking and choosing!) I do think that the glorification and support of war and violence is a clear betrayal of what Jesus lived and taught. Not so our evolution in thinking and teaching about gender and sexuality. There's lots of room there, I believe, for development; for taking into account the findings of science and people's lived experience and allowing them to shape church teaching. (After all, what did Jesus actually say about homosexuality?) Yet the clerical caste remains stubbornly resistant to such development. It therefore remains up to the Catholic people to lead the way; to discern and facilitate beyond the limited perspective of the hierarchy, the blossoming of liberating insights on matters related to gender and sexuality.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Beyond the Hierarchy (Part 1)
Beyond the Hierarchy (Part 2)
Beyond the Hierarchy (Part 3)
Robert McClory on Humanae Vitae
Responding to Bishop Tobin's Remarks About Gay Marriage
Quote of the Day – August 3, 2011
Quote of the Day – July 7, 2011
John Dear on Celebrating the Birth of the Nonviolent Jesus
Christianity and Nagasaki
The Challenge of Peace

Image: Minnesota Public Radio/Sasha Aslanian (October 2010).


Unknown said...

I've been reading what you write for four or five years.

Is there anything that the Catholic Church teaches that you believe? I suspect if it were not for art, music, liturgy and the works of Catholic Charities, all the human, material aspects of the faith, you wouldn't even consider being a Catholic.

But I continue to pray for you daily.

brian gerard said...

Excellent post, Michael. These fundamentalists, and it is an unfortunate fact that the clerics of the Catholic Church have become this, profess faith in God, yet, require governments, with their coercive powers, to make a world where no faith is necessary. That is, their transitory beliefs, in this case contraception, must be enforced by secular powers lest "the faithful" stray. This action turns all away from faith in God and toward faith in human institutions.