Out of Step With the Flock: Bishops Far Behind on Birth Control Issues

Even though 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women use birth control during their reproductive years, U.S. bishops are fighting it

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Last month, the Vatican issued a clarion call to all people of conscience. It wasn't about contraception or masturbation or gay marriage or any of the other aspects of peoples' love lives have drawn religious ire through the ages. Instead, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace stepped forward to question the morality of a global economic system that relentlessly enriches a privileged few while the rest of humanity struggles to keep their heads above water.

The council reaffirmed the notion highlighted in Pope Benedict XVI's 2009 encyclical on the economy, arguing that open markets -- usually the engines of prosperity -- can foster poverty and inequality when unscrupulously exploited for selfish ends. As a counterbalance, the council called for international standards and safeguards to stem the world's worsening inequities in the concentration of wealth.

With millions of Americans looking for jobs and struggling in this economy, you might expect the nation's Catholic bishops to join the Vatican's quest to level the economic playing field. However, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have other priorities. They are consumed just now with the subject of birth control. The bishops' leadership is unhappy about a new national policy that includes birth control under preventive health care: a designation that requires new health plans to cover it in full, without the co-payments and deductibles that keep many women from using it effectively. This policy, which was adopted last summer and goes into effect next August, is both laudable and common-sense.

As a woman and a lifelong Catholic, I sometimes marvel that faith can flourish despite the hierarchy's not infrequent disdain for the faithful

With yesterday, the 8th day of December, marking the Feast of the Immaculate Conception -- which refers to Mary's being conceived free of original sin, not the conception of Jesus -- it would be wise of the bishops to realize that the conception of Mary by her human parents, Saint Joachim and Saint Anne, is a reminder that woman are people of conscience and can decide for themselves when it is best to conceive. In fact, birth control use is universal, even among Catholic women: 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women use birth control during their reproductive years.

Yet the more conservative bishops don't approve. So they're working with congressional Republicans to undermine this new benefit. If they succeed, millions of women -- Catholic and non-Catholic alike -- will miss out on the promise of the new health care law.

At issue is the health insurance that religiously-aligned employers sponsor for their workers. When health officials adopted the new birth control policy, they made an exception for "religious employers," giving them an exemption from this benefit. That concession, granted over the objection of health advocates, recognizes a narrowly defined refusal provision.

But that wasn't enough for the bishops' conference and their congressional allies. They now want the exemption expanded to cover not only "religious employers" but also the thousands of hospitals, schools, universities, and service organizations that are affiliated with religious organizations. The USCCB's demands are undermined by the fact that many of these Catholic entities currently offer birth control coverage through the health plans they offer employees. This larger exception would do nothing to protect religious freedom. But it would deny a benefit to a whole class of workers -- including hundreds of thousands of non-Catholics -- who want it, need it, and are legally entitled to it.

The bishops' ploy is yet another indication of how out of step they are with their flock. In the mid-1960s, Pope Paul VI authorized a commission to make recommendations about the use of birth control. The laypeople on the commission voted 60-4 for change, while the clerics voted 9 to 6. Despite the majority of both clerics and laypeople in favor of change, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, argued that this change would undermine Church authority, because it would look like the Church could not discern eternal truths.

Well, Catholic theologians, priests, and laity did discern truths, and it is the Church's authority that was undermined. Wojtyle wrote, "To change our position would mean that we should concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant Churches." Why, more than 40 years later, do bishops need to lobby Congress to get us Catholics to do what they want? Shouldn't they be able to persuade us on their own? The fact that they can't is a tribute to their own impotence.

Presented by

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the author of Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Mixed God With Politics and Lost Their Way. From 1995 to 2003, she was Maryland's first woman lieutenant governor.

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