We have recently experienced a strong confrontation between the Catholic Church and the US Government, initiated by a mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services that all insurance plans must include contraceptive coverage. The Church sees this mandate as government interference in the practice of religion and, thus a violation the First Amendment. The government sees the Church’s position as a matter of not wanting to be mandated to provide its non-ministerial employees birth control coverage, an benefit that covers what is contrary to Church teaching, but which the government sees as essential for women’s health and a way to cut down radically on the number of abortions performed each year.
As of this writing, a compromise has been proposed, with mixed reactions across the board. The Catholic Bishops insist that removing the requirement that Catholic non-ministerial agencies provide birth control coverage, but that the insurers will have to only hides the cost on the Catholic agency’s books, but the agency is still paying for it. So the matter of religious freedom is still not addressed., they say.
One question seems to be whether or not the federal government can ever interfere with a religion’s practice at all. There are precedents, in cases with which most Americans would agree: Christian Scientists have been jailed for not taking children to doctors because of their beliefs; Mormons were forced to drop their practice of polygamy. In both cases, the government put what it considered the over all good of the nation and its citizens over the rights of religious practice. The position is that or the sake of women’s health and to cut down on the number of abortions used as a form of birth control, prescriptive birth control must be available to any citizen The Bishops counter that the presenting issue is not about birth control; it is about the government restricting religious freedom.
There are no winners in this crisis. Even if they come to understand each others’ position, neither will surrender to the other,. As long as they see birth-control as an intrinsic evil, the Bishops will not change their stance. And the government is in no position to disregard what it sees as a major health—not moral- matter. You are reading this ten days after I have written it, so you have that much more knowledge of the situation than I do now. I predict it will end up in the courts.
The Church leadership has to come to terms with its own responsibility for this crisis. In short, since 1968, the teaching church has ignored the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) regarding artificial means of controlling birth. Although his own commission almost unanimously agreed with the majority report stating that artificial means of birth control is not intrinsically evil, four members filed a minority report, saying that if the Church ever taught otherwise, it must always teach otherwise. To do otherwise would be to say that morality is relative.
There have been many unintended consequences to the 1968 discard of the Papal Commission’s recommendation, which was based on the minority report. One might wonder if the Pope had integrated the findings of his own commission into his teaching, the current crisis would exist. As we have seen from the abuse scandal, when leaders do not follow their own established procedures, much harm can be caused. I agree with the bishops’ contention that the issue here is not birth control. But neither is it a matter of religious rights. If they believe that religious freedom is for everybody, inside and outside the Church, maybe the bishops need, at last, to really listen to the sense of the faithful. It is easy to make rules for a group to which one does not belong. But is it moral? Is it just?