By John Stoehr
5:45 PM EST, March 6, 2012
It's been weeks since the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops first denounced a mandate that required preventive care for female employees in Catholic employers' insurance plans. In case you missed it, they said President Barack Obama's rule infringed on the religious liberty of Catholic employers. Requiring religiously affiliated hospitals and colleges to pay for birth control, they said, violates their conscience and therefore violates their First Amendment rights.
So they say.
Progressive critics have argued that the issue was never about religious freedom but about women's rights. Now that Obama has tweaked the rule so that insurance companies, not churches, must provide birth control, what was at stake all along has finally been revealed. That seems right but only half right.
No doubt the bishops desired to uphold church doctrine, but this was just a means to end. That church doctrine has something to say about how women should comport themselves is incidental (and chauvinist, discriminatory and hypocritical, but for a moment that's beside the point). What's important about church doctrine, at least to fanatics, is that it gives reason to the existence of church authority. What's the point of church authority if it allows the secularizing forces of modernity to railroad the ancient sacred tenets of the One True Church?
We used to have a different kind of debate on the role of the Catholic Church in American politics. Granted, that debate was bigoted and paranoid about grubby papist hordes from Italy, Ireland and Poland who privileged fealty to Rome over pledging allegiance to the flag. But from these 19th-century tensions arose a fundamental value that we now take for granted: the separation between church and state.
These days the mainstream view of the establishment clause is that it keeps government safe from religion, but back then, it was to keep religion safe from the government — not, however, in the way you might think. Church-state separation was a bulwark protecting Protestantism from Catholicism. That is to say, if a Catholic rose to political power, it was a hedge against his imposing his beliefs on everyone else. It was xenophobic, but in practice the principle meant protecting government from religion was an indirect and uniquely American way of protecting a religion from other religions.
Of course, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who as Archbishop was president of the bishops conference, has appealed to the First Amendment and, by implication, the establishment clause when he said that government has no business telling religion what it can and can't do. But by claiming that Catholic conscience supersedes the rule of law, Dolan and others are in effect imposing their beliefs on the non-Catholic workers, patients and students at hospitals and colleges affiliated with the Church, an outcome that church-state separation sought to prevent.
This is no doubt why the original mandate for providing preventive care for women allowed for an exception respecting religion (an exception, by the way, that was modeled on laws in 28 states). If employers hire mostly Catholics, serve mostly Catholics, and seek to convert those whom they serve to Catholicism, then they qualified for an exception to the rule, because, otherwise, forcing Catholic employers to provide birth control would be a double violation: of employers' religious convictions and their guaranteed First Amendment rights.
So, you see, the mandate and its exception already had in mind the preservation of the right to religious liberty. But Dolan and the bishops turned this around to serve their needs, not the needs of lay Catholics and non-Catholics. They can't follow the law because their Catholic, they say, and they can't be exempted from the law because their Catholic. They don't want equal protection under the law; they want exceptional protection. What's obvious about this "controversy" is that it's anti-birth control and hence anti-women. What's not obvious is that it's an expression of an authoritarian worldview, one that's deeply un-American.
Why are they fighting now that the mandate has been changed so that insurance companies pay for birth control, not churches, thus saving religious employers from the sin of violating their conscience? And why are the bishops rejecting Obama's "compromise" when prominent Catholics like columnist EJ Dionne and the editors of America, a Jesuit weekly magazine, are OK with it?
My guess is this is part of the global drift of the Roman Catholic Church to the right, which itself is a reaction to secular currents in Europe and North America. They are fighting against same-sex marriage, and for the hearts and minds of Catholics disillusioned by dogma and by years of headlines about priests raping boys and girls. But at their core, they are doubling down to protect their power.
The Catholic Church is not a republican institution. If it were, it would be at serious odds with its constituents, a majority of whom have used birth control at least once in their lives. It seems that only fanatics would be impervious to the hypocrisy between this birth-control crusade and recent allegations that more than 8,000 instances of sexual abused by 100 priests in Milwaukee.
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