Bishop Wester is Wrong: Religious Freedom is Not Under Attack

Yesterday, the Salt Lake Tribune published an op-ed from Bishop John C. Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City in which the Bishop claims:

More and more, I get the distinct impression that the voice of religion is not welcome in the public square. Even more troubling, it seems to me that the bedrock of religious freedom is being limited as our government wades into the dangerous waters of defining what is or is not a church.

The HHS definition of a church essentially creates a two-tiered structure — protecting the sanctuary while relegating works of charity to an inferior, unprotected status. For the Catholic Church, the works of charity we perform through our social service agencies, schools, and hospitals are deeply rooted in the beliefs we express in the sanctuary. To define us in any other way is to violate our right to practice what we preach.

With all due respect to Wester, he’s either being deliberately dishonest or disingenuous.  I’ll let you take a few moments and enjoy Stephen Colbert’s take down of the church’s position.  And interesting take on the contretemps at Andrew Sullivan’s blog reads, in part:

Birth control is for 98% of women the principal means of protecting a right central to their own liberty – the right to choose when to create a family. Chances are most women employed by Catholic universities and hospitals are part of the 98%. For these women, not having access to birth control renders a crucially important right meaningless.

Full insurance coverage is a critical part of the picture. Birth control is an expensive product – $81 a month is considered a steal with no contribution from your insurance, but that number still prices out many women. Even insurance plans that have copayscan be prohibitively pricey. Cheaper alternatives like condoms have significant failure rates. Insurance, overwhelmingly provided by employers in the American system, that covers birth control with no copays is a woman’s best bet.

Women’s freedom to control their reproductive lives should be, in my mind, a central value of a modern society.  It also touches on what John McGowan talked about in his book American Liberalism when he discussed effective freedom.  Denying access to or making access to contraception so complex and expensive as to effectively prohibit it is an attack on women’s effective freedom, on the ability of women to self realize their goals for themselves.

First off, Bishop Wester is mistaken about something – the HHS definition doesn’t create a two tiered structure, that structure already exists and it’s the result of theology.  As a non-Catholic, I can’t go into a church and take communion, no can I expect and require a Catholic priest to perform my wedding.  I can’t expect to be in a leadership role in a Catholic parish, no matter my skills or years of attendance if I’m not a member.  On the other hand, if I am and employee of a Catholic charity, I can expect to be promoted if I have the skills.  If I am hungry the church doesn’t ask my faith before they feed me and their hospital doesn’t ask my faith before they agree to perform my surgery.  Their school educated me even though I’m not Catholic and I got the same, high quality education as my Catholic peers.  I was never treated any differently in the classroom than my Catholic peers.  The Bishop is right that the work performed in the church’s charities is rooted in the beliefs expressed in the sanctuary; but those institutions are not the sanctuary, do not behave like the sanctuary and are not harmed in any way by adhering to the same rules as other employees.  The sanctuary itself is not being imposed upon by the HHS regulations; the church is still free to preach that no one should use contraception and its members will continue to ignore its teachings in overwhelming numbers.

Official Catholic doctrine says people should not use birth control; 98% of Catholic women in the US use birth control.  Having studied the issue for themselves, they’re disagreeing with the hierarchy and doing so in numbers so massive as to make the all male celibate clergy of the church appear utterly without influence over their flock.  Which come to think of it, on this issue, they are.  But even that’s not really the point.  Catholic doctrine on social justice is pretty powerful.  Catholic teaching on social justice – and on women’s issues – is often a mixed bag (for instance favoring universal health care but opposing access to contraception, opposing the death penalty but also opposing abortion rights).  For all its flaws and shortcomings, the church often tries to side with the powerless against the privileged, to ground its theology in concern for the individual and his/her well being.  For some reason, where women’s reproductive health is concerned the church seems to lose sight of what is good for women and for the individual woman.  The church’s relationship with its female members is exceedingly complex with women deeply loyal to the church and the backbone of many parishes but also treated as second class citizens in terms of  authority.  The experience of a host of Protestant denominations, including the Episcopal church, has demonstrated beyond a doubt that women are capable and inspiring ministers.

In an intriguing piece at AlterNet, Adele Stan wrote:

 In offering the bishops an “accommodation” they refused to accept on a contraception provision of the new healthcare law, the Obama administration effectively exposed the powerlessness of the bishops when the rest of the church rose to accept the offer. Any perception of the bishops’ power that remains in the halls of Congress or the annals of news stories exists solely because that perception serves the aims of its purveyors: right-wing politicians and news producers in need of spectacle. And, of course, the bishops themselves.

On the issue of contraception, the Bishops have no influence on their flocks.  Contraception is a losing issue for the right for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its simplicity and popularity.  Americans are not about to give up using contraception, and American women sure as hell aren’t about to.  Popularity itself isn’t an argument in favor of contraception.

No, the real argument here is that contraception is good for women’s health; giving women control over their reproductive health is good for women (and men and children for that matter).  Church doctrine on birth control is wrong, not because lots of women use it, but because it is at odds with basic justice toward’s women’s health and autonomy.

A number of points have been made repeatedly, including the fact that 28 states already have identical regulations to the new HHS regulation on contraception coverage and the Catholic church has been okay with that.  California and New York already have such regulations in place and Catholic charities in those states have continued to thrive in those states.  Colbert stated that 62% of catholic charities’ money comes from tax dollars.  If Catholic leaders are willing to forego tax dollars, they are welcome to institute any policies they like in their charities.  However, having agreed to take money from all Americans, then they have a duty to recognize that those dollars come with certain responsibilities.  One of those responsibilities is to play by the same rules everyone plays by.

Bp. Wester includes the fatuous claim that

 . . . there is a growing hostility toward religious belief and a dangerously cavalier attitude toward religious freedom. I understand not everyone will accept Catholic teaching on contraception or even agree on a single definition of contraception.

Claims that hostility towards religion is growing are tenuous at best.  Sally Kohn at the American Prospect suggested that the Bishops are facing a difficult situation and are responding the way their responding to rally the base:

 . . . At a time when the scale and influence of the Catholic Church in America is in rapid decline, there’s nothing like a “war on religion” to rally your troops.

None other than Pat Buchanan outlined the decline of Catholicism in America. In 1965, there were 58,000 priests in America. By 2020, it’s projected there will be only 31,000 left, most over the age of 70. In 1965, only 1 percent of parishes didn’t have a priest. In 2002, 15 percent of parishes were priest-less. Almost half of Catholic high schools in the United States have closed since 1965 and parochial school attendance has fallen from 4.5 million in 1965 to below two million in 2002.

And those numbers all came out before the clergy sex-abuse scandal hit the front pages. In a 2010 poll, 58 percent of Catholics (and 66 percent of the general public) said they felt the Church was doing a “poor” job handling the scandals. According to the same poll, one in five Catholics said the Vatican’s handling of the situation left them feeling more negatively about the Church. Only 4 percent felt more positive.

It’s a provocative idea.  If the Bishops can convince American Catholics that the church is under attack, they may be able to restore their own influence over the behaviors and attitudes of members of that church.  I’m not sure it’s a winning idea – for too many decades even the most faithful of American Catholics have carefully and thoughtfully balanced their faith with the dictates of their individual conscience and made decisions at odds with the church hierarchy.  The clergy sex abuse scandal has weakened the hierarchy’s influence – and it was an entirely self-inflicted wound.

If there is a threat to religion, it is coming from the behavior of those who most publicly proclaim their faith – whether it is Catholic bishops who have blithely spent decades ignoring the real crisis in the church of sexual abuse or dishonest preachers like Georgia’s Eddie Long who apparently enjoyed the company of underage male members of his church, if you take my meaning.  In the interest of clarity,  the charges against him were not proven and Long denies them adamantly; of course the subsequent payoffs of the accusers looks bad although such things usually include no admission of guilt or wrongdoing.

Bishop Wester end his op-ed thus:

But we should be able to agree that religious freedom — the ability to worship God according to one’s faith without overarching government intrusion — must be protected as a fundamental hallmark of our democracy.

What remains in doubt however is that religious freedom is under assault.  Regulations requiring employer sponsored health plans to provide contraception as preventive care and therefore free to patients has no effect on the ability to worship God according to one’s faith and is not a government intrusion into the freedom to worship.  The supposed “hostility” the Bishop bemoans is in fact simple fairness, a matter of putting everyone on the same, level playing field.  Like the false claims that legalizing same sex marriage amount to discrimination against religious persons, the claim that the new HHS regulations are some sort of attack on religious freedom are entirely false.

I’ve written extensively about claims that religious freedom are under assault (here for example) and I keep coming back to the same basic insight.  The people making these claims aren’t actually experiencing a loss of religious freedom; instead they are upset that religion has lost its pre-eminent place as arbiter of morals and that it is not longer given automatic respect and deference when it voices its opinion.  In attacking access to contraception, the Catholic hierarchy is responding badly and clumsily to the realization that it no longer has automatic authority to tell people what to do with their genitals and it is doing everything it can to restore some of the authority it has long since lost and squandered.  Having covered up child sex abuse for decades, the hierarchy has no authority to speak about sexual morality and declaring war with contemporary America over contraception, it is doing everything it can to compensate for the disaster it unleashed on itself.  Catholic leaders actively protected monsters in their midst for decades and when their actions and inactions were revealed, they damaged, perhaps for generations, their own moral authority.  This hopeless crusade against contraception, wildly overblown claims of a loss of religious freedom, are nothing more than smoke and mirrors in a funhouse attempt to divert attention from their own sins.

 Here’s a couple interesting links:

  1. Bill Moyers on the issue.
  2. Washington Monthly and another one at Washington Monthly.
  3. EJ Graf

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  1. #1 by cav on February 20, 2012 - 11:45 am

    An Atheist might swing over to being an Anti-Theist – but that is as much a prompt for those whose discomfort with Reality (and by converse extension: the Authority, Power and Gold or lack of same often linked with Reality), is a problem.

    Had the ‘Liberation Theology’ which was becoming popular in Latin America in the ’70s and ’80s not been so discouraged, I dare say we would not be having this discussion today.

    • #2 by Glenden Brown on February 20, 2012 - 12:10 pm

      I agree. Had John Paul II not associated Liberation Theology with communism and tried to stamp it out, we would not be having this conversation. I think it’s interesting that today’s ideologically inflexible American right got its start opposing communism as well and has ended up in much the same place.

  2. #3 by cav on February 20, 2012 - 6:12 pm

    Mal-adaptive imaginings and power-mongering such as that found in the superstitions born in antiquity, are, to my way of thinking, attacking evolutionary processes every bit as much as the bishop fears his ‘bubble of same’ is being attacked.

    Approaching ‘word salad’ but it takes two to tango.

  3. #4 by cav on February 20, 2012 - 6:33 pm

    Colbert by the way, is a genius and true national treasure.

    Thanks for that.

  4. #5 by Richard Warnick on February 21, 2012 - 10:44 am

    He has the impression the voice of religion is not welcome in the public square? I guess bishops don’t have time to watch cable TV news.

    Rick Sanctimonious Santorum by himself is putting out more religiosity than most of us can stand.

  5. #6 by brewski on February 21, 2012 - 12:55 pm

    Or listen to Barack Obama quote from scripture.

  6. #7 by brewski on February 21, 2012 - 1:01 pm

    I guess we should tell the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Rev. Martin Luther King, Rev Jessie Jackson, Rev Al Sharpton, that they all have no place involving themselves in politics.

  7. #8 by Richard Warnick on February 21, 2012 - 1:38 pm

    Religion is welcome in the “public square” ad nauseam as per the First Amendment. As Glenden points out, some have confused “freedom of religion” with legislation that imposes some people’s religious views on others. That kind of lawmaking is the opposite of freedom of religion.

  8. #9 by Larry Bergan on February 21, 2012 - 6:30 pm

    There is a definite push for a campaign to convince religious people that Obama is attacking religion. I just got a fiery letter from Orrin – no shame – Hatch on the subject.

    Bill Moyers is always worth listening to. If you haven’t caught every episode of his new show, you’ve been missing out. It airs every Sunday to 11:00am on KUED and then again at 2:30 pm on KBYU. Sort of amazing that KBYU carries some of the programming it does.

    You can still see every Moyers episode on his website for “Moyers and Company“.

  9. #10 by Shane on February 21, 2012 - 9:07 pm

    Ah brewski, taking the inability to reason to new and more breath taking heights with each post!

  10. #11 by Shane Translator on February 21, 2012 - 10:03 pm

    “I can’t think of a single substantive thing to say so I will just spew third-grade personal venom”

  11. #12 by Shane on February 22, 2012 - 7:27 am

    You are so cute when you troll brewski! I don’t understand why everyone who ever met thinks you should have been an abortion…

  12. #13 by cav on February 22, 2012 - 8:22 am

    I don’t understand why everyone who ever met you thinks you shouldn’t have been an abortion…

    Fixt yer typo. I think.

  13. #14 by Richard Warnick on February 22, 2012 - 3:41 pm

    For those seeking both entertainment and perhaps enlightenment.

    Rick Santorum or Satanic Heavy Metal: The Quiz

    I scored 70% but I guessed on more than half the questions.

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