January 30, 2012
Government, Religion and Contraception
— Martin E. Marty
"To hell with you!" is the message of the government to churches. So reasoned or charged Pittsburgh Catholic bishop David Zubik last week. He was reflecting on new federal rules that would force employers to include access to contraception (and sterilization) in health-insurance coverage for employees. "To hell with you!" is an ever more frequently uttered response to such governmental measures by a mix of citizens who resent having to deal with changes in health-care financing and insurance policies. In the bulls-eye that targets hell, Health and Human Services and its Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, are frequently issued one-way tickets to hell. Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix is most vocal and frontal among condemners of those Catholics who more or less side with Sebelius.
Michael Clancy in Saturday's The Arizona Republic notes that "The Roman Catholic Church is the only significant denomination opposed to contraception." We could find others, depending on how one defines "significant." But in the press, it has become a Catholic issue, a designation that not all people in politics and government cherish. Some ponder: why is it a Catholic issue if, as we read in numerous polls, only two percent of Catholic women of child-bearing age oppose and do not use contraceptives?
Can we start over in the civil controversy over contraception? Before hell gets too crowded we might do well to get the hell out of here, meaning out of the current debates, the first inspired by Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and now by the HHS ruling. One may rue Bishop Olmsted's approach to these controversial issues and still agree with him that much is at stake in what he calls an "alarming and serious matter." It "impacts the church in the United States and threatens the fundamental right to religious liberty." Must it?
David Skeel in The Wall Street Journal was accurate in observing that after several decades in which church/state issues had dealt chiefly with religious symbols and practices in the public square, in the coming decade the fights and uncertainties will have to do with the ways in which federal and state regulations would inject government into religious affairs. Such issues are easily exploited by political factions and interests on all sides, but they cannot easily be wished away. Did the government in the current case act brutally, as its opponents claim? Or is the government simply seeking to help assure justice to citizens of all religious and non-religious sorts?
Citizens of all sorts? The Arizona Republic quotes Jan Olav Flaaten, the Lutheran pastor who directs the Arizona Ecumenical Council, who observes that "most religious groups are not concerned that the government overstretches in church-state relations" on this front. He added that he could think of no other group than Catholics that had issues with contraception." In most surveys that we have seen, about 98 percent of Catholic women of child-bearing age tell the poll-taker that they use contraceptive birth control devices and pills, whatever official church teaching and the bishops may say. The Catholic population is very little different from the rest of the population. Still, Catholic consciences and power have to be reckoned with. Can the controversy get off to a better start?
David Skeel, "On Religious Freedom, Years of Battles Ahead," The Wall Street Journal, January 27, 2012.
Michael Clancy, "Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted: Defy Feds on Birth Control," The Arizona Republic, January 28, 2012.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.