Fortnight for Freedom

Charles Honey’s column last Sunday sets the conflict between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church over the mandate to provide contraception in certain employment settings. Honey is skeptical, but he does point to the bishops report, and that is worth some comment.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, head of the bishops’ committee on religious liberty, recently told the U.S. Bishops Conference meeting in Atlanta the liberty campaign is no “walk in the park,” either. He said some reaction had been “hostile, sometimes unfair and inaccurate and sometimes derisive.”
He also said bishops’ concerns go beyond the health-care mandate. His committee’s report, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” also cited state immigration measures, such as an Alabama law prohibiting priests from baptizing or preaching to illegal immigrants.

It is an odd thing  to engage in the public square by refusing to provide either references to or third party provisions for contraception, yet such is the Church’s stance.  Odder yet,  to treat the federal mandate as an “unjust law” thereby requiring acts of conscience, similar to the unjust laws protested during the Civil Rights era — this is a case of intellectual (one is tempted to say “jesuitical”) abuse. It doesn’t fly.

Of course, it might fly were the core social teachings of the Church focused on sex. But they are not. These are emanations of emanations from the great teachings on social duty, in the Bible, in the Fathers, and in the actual practice of the Church. The voice and witness on these matters is a gift to not only others who make a Christian confession, but to society as a whole.

Bluntly, the hostility to artificial contraception is a product deriving from the manner of the Church’s reasoning, and so is something less ecumenical and more particular, even sectarian. Sectarian beliefs ought to be guarded within the bounds of a religious body, but when that body is employing non-adherents, hired on basis of secular merit — say like Mercy Health, the sole provider of healthcare in Muskegon County — then the case for making those beliefs integral to the institution seem strained.

The Bishops are right to be concerned about maintaining the integrity of their witness. they subvert it with the turn to the sectarian with their non-adherent, secular employees.

Update: The discussion continues on in an engaging dialogue with Kevin Rahe, an articulate lay Catholic. Continue reading “Fortnight for Freedom”

Relgious freedom

Stand Up for Religious Freedom will be holding rallies this Friday. Tim Martin provides details.

Religious organizations could have insurers cover the costs of the contraceptive coverage rather than pay for it directly. But that attempted compromise from the Obama administration has not satisfied some religious groups. Critics say the rule violates their rights to religious freedom.
“We just don’t believe government should interfere in the way churches define their faith,” said Cheryl Rehmann, a Catholic involved in organizing a Lansing rally against the mandate.

Religious institutions do not get free passes as to how they conduct their affairs. This becomes especially true when the institutions employ non-adherents to help with their mission. Then the institution necessarily must conduct itself towards employees much as any other institution. And I would think scale matters, as well. it’s one thing to have a couple of sympathetic non-adherents helping out, but when one is one of the largest employers in the county (see Mercy Health in Muskegon County), the obligations towards non-adherents does increase as does the expectation of equity in employee benefits.

Hiding behind claims of “religious freedom” will not resolve the underlying condition of this engagement. What does make the issue so slippery is that the societal questions vary not only as to the presence of non-adherents, but also in the scale of operation. Thus one simply appeal to the Constitution really does not work very well, here. Then on top of this, we also admit as a society that even behavior that would be strictly internal to a religious body may nonetheless fall under societal rules, e.g. questions of polygamy, abuse, financial malfeasance.

Lenten Gaps

Jeff Munroe explores the gap between leadership and followers:

What fascinates me instead is the gap that I believe the administration initially stumbled over – the gap between what the church teaches on the one hand and the actual belief and behavior of most Catholics on the other. I’ve been wondering if there are similar situations in the RCA and CRC, wondering what gulfs exist between official church policy and the actual beliefs and behavior of the majority.

And asks,

What gaps do you see between what we officially say and what we actually do?  How do you account for these gaps?

 Jason Lief  brings an interesting response

I love the gap. I think we should embrace the gap. I prefer to call it the “wink.” As we announce the ideals upon which we stand we give a little wink and a smile. The beauty of lived reality is that the gap exists in every area of life. What we’re “supposed” to do and what we actually do is a beautiful dance of generosity and grace. This is not hypocricy – it’s the recognition that life cannot be lived in the realm of lofty ideals. This is the gospel – maybe we should interpet the incarnation as the divine “wink and a smile”?

Call it a gap or a wink, but there is also something Lenten about this. Lent’s focus on recovery through discipline speaks to the lack of integrity in our lives, corporately and individually. We’re always saying two things. Or three. In this, the mix-up on contraception shadows our own mixed-up lives, the desire to do right mixed with the desire to establish ourselves a little better; likewise, there’s leadership on one side, the pew wandering in its own way. Or perhaps it’s like the sweets we put away Tuesday, the gooey music that’s so much fun and can fill a mouth with joy, but we know it really isn’t that good for us. Yet.


So here comes Lent with its challenge to die, and in so doing to catch a glimpse of what it can mean to be a little more whole, be a little more integrated. I open the hymnbook, scan the latest addition to political outrage only to hear my heart’s tug and know the gap opens wide in me, as well. What else can I say, but give me an open ear, soften my heart, help me to open this still-clenched hand.

Heal this wounded soul.

Frame Issues

As  can be expected, Get Religion has been paying especial attention to the controversy between the administration and the Catholic church. I first suggested that some stories went unheard.

One story aspect that I have not seen covered is that of the recipient of these pills. Let’s call her Hanna in Housekeeping, the single mom with two pre-schoolers. This is the human interest side, the one with real skin in the game. Up until now we have pretty much dealt with the story as told by one of the two institutional players, the administration or the Catholic hierarchy, but the individual story actually gives some substance as to what is involved here, what these larger decisions mean for those who do the work.

To which, Paul of Alexandria responded

Harris (22): Hanna is actually irrelevant to this story, even though the Democrats keep trying to drag her in. This issue is about the rights of the employers, not the employees.

Hanna belongs. While the nominal controversy can be framed as one of government v. employer rights that particular frame has been decided by courts; the government possesses the power to establish uniform measures for employers. The issue here does not turn on that rather unexceptionable finding, but rather on the violation of particular institutional religious tenets.

When we engage in religious battles we encounter a landscape in which multiple claims to rights are made. There is a persistent tension between the right of religious practice and societal limits in the concern of equity; this roughly the battle between the 1st and the 14th amendment. This battle-line keeps shifting, these concerns are constantly recalibrated with respect to each other.

Seen as a battle-line, the conflict does become one of winners and losers, the easy stuff of political conflict. here is where the human interest story actually helps us out. We meet the stakeholders being affected. A good focus on the individual not only makes for some interesting story-telling (e.g. why are you working at this Catholic hospital and not the big one on the hill?), it also helps humanize the hospital – itself, not a bad outcome.

There is also one other story not getting told well at all in this: that of the Church’s own position – this too arises from the battle-line coverage of winners and losers. If we miss the impact on the female employees (the Hannas), we also miss the actual reasoning for the position. The New York Times went a little down that road, in spelling out the reasoning that pushed the American Church to this decision. Ironically, one of the best presentations of the Church’s case for this outsider, showed up in comments by “theAmericanist” on Ed Kilore’s post “Contraception and ‘Religious Liberty’” at Political Animal.

Change of Heat?

News today was the change in proposed policy on contraceptive coverage. According to MLive,
President Obama is changing a controversial rule requiring religiously affiliated organizations to provide birth control to employees by putting the onus on insurance companies to pay for the contraception.
Kevin Rahe responds
In other words, he is making no substantive change to the policy at all.

Yes and no. Functionally what the policy does is to shift the administration of the plan (at least the contraceptive part) to a secular third party — the insurance company. This gets a bit problematic with respect to self-insured hospitals, say. But it terms of respecting religious scruples of the administration of a college or hospital, a third party shift does look like  an appropriate accommodation.

Of course, the deeper desire not to offer contraception even at arms length is not dealt with, but then at lest at state level, case law allows for neutral public policy to over ride religious scruples; faith is not a trump card.