The Catholic Church in America has rarely been a voice for progress. Up until the Second Vatican Council, American bishops and the bishop in Rome opposed the first amendment and its contention all religions should be treated equally by the state. (Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray was silenced by Rome for suggesting the first amendment was a good idea) the Church turned a blind eye to, or openly supported slavery. Priests and bishops refused to admit African Americans to their parishes in many parts of the South. It was a mortal sin to join a trade union. (In San Francisco, Peter Yorke Street is named for a priest who refused to follow the Church's dictums.) When Catholic cemetery workers tried to get higher pay and better working conditions in Boston, the cardinal used seminarians as strikebreakers and declared the workers to be committing serious sin by their actions. The women's rights movement saw little church support, nor did the Civil Rights movement. During the Vietnam War, draft boards were informed by the American bishops no Catholic could use their religion as a basis for a claim to be a conscientious objector to the war. The Church has led the fight against access to contraceptives and abortion and fought to defeat central elements of the gay rights movement.
It should not be a surprise, then, to see bishops rising up in anger over the decision by the Obama administration to require health insurance plans, offered by Catholic universities, hospitals and social service agencies, to cover employees who wish access to various forms of legal contraceptives. Now, the first amendment is being violated and the very foundation of the Bill of Rights shaken by telling Catholic institutions they cannot discriminate against women. If there was any doubt about the Church's true motivations, they are laid to rest by the American Catholic Bishop's rejection of the compromise Obama has offered. Under this new plan, the Church would not pay for contraceptives; the insurance companies would cover the cost of the benefit. The bishops complained the compromise doesn't go far enough. They want a policy in which "any" employer can refuse to grant employees access to contraceptive services based on religious convictions. Any employer, pharmacist...storeowner...trucking company...should be able to use their Catholic religion to discriminate against women and be safe from legal repercussions. They don't want compromise. They want capitulation.
This same group of bishops threatens to shut down adoption services in cities across the land if these agencies are required to treat same sex couples the same as they do heterosexual couples. Once again, they argue the law should not apply to them. Despite no evidence to support the contention gay parents cause their children more harm than straight parents, the Church insists it has the right to use religion to discriminate. This same logic would allow religious exceptions to racial discrimination laws. There are cases of landlords who have refused to rent to same sex or mixed race or unmarried couples based on their religious beliefs. The American bishop's position would suggest these landlords are on safe constitutional grounds to discriminate under the first amendment.
Ironically, as the American bishops wage their war on women's health, Pope Benedict XVI has issued a decree permitting the use of condoms in Africa if they are used to prevent the spread of disease. In other words, a Catholic can use a contraceptive device if there is a health concern at issue. The ability to prevent unplanned pregnancy is a serious health issue. Unplanned pregnancies produce premature and low birth weight babies many of who have debilitating developmental problems as they grow. Unplanned pregnancies can have negative mental health affects and many women lack access to the prenatal and other care necessary for a healthy pregnancy which results in serious health issues for the women including future infertility. The Pope recognizes the problem. Unfortunately, the American bishops refuse to confront the hypocrisy of their own position.
Catholic hospitals, universities and social service agencies receive federal and state tax dollars. The majority of taxpayers is not Catholic and are women. To take taxpayer funding, but expect you can discriminate against those same taxpayers with impunity is foolish and arrogant. If the bishops truly want clean hands, refuse to take any tax funding. Hospitals would refuse Medicare and Medicaid funding and turn down tax funding to cover the uninsured and indigent. Catholic Charities would refuse all federal monies for housing and food assistance as well as substance abuse problems. Do the American bishops feel so strongly about this issue to close Catholic universities, hospitals and social service agencies? When even the Pope allows for condoms for health reasons, will the American bishops cut off their nose to spite their face and abandon their commitment to serve the least of their brothers and sisters? The bishops want their cake and eat it too. They want federal money to pursue their mission, but rail against the constitutional protections that go along with the money.
It is no accident Newt Gingrich converted to Catholicism or that Rick Santorum is comfortable as a Republican regressive Catholic. In the last 40 years, the Church has become an adjunct arm of the Republican Party. George Bush went to Rome to ask Pope John Paul II to encourage the American bishops to support Republican policies and candidates. Four of the five most regressive justices on the Supreme Court are Catholic. (#5, Anthony Kennedy occasionally is a swing vote) The Church led the fight to pass Proposition 8 in California banning gay marriage. It has become the place of comfort for those who wish to return this nation to the Gilded Age.
Over 80% of Catholic women use contraception. Catholic women choose abortion at about the same percentages as non-Catholic women. 63% of Catholics believe women should have access to contraception at Church run institutions. 54% support the compromise Obama has offered. The punditocracy has made much of this fight between the bishops and Obama. They pontificate how this could cost Obama the Catholic vote and his chances for re-election in November. They are whistling past the graveyard. Catholics who oppose abortion, contraception and gay marriage weren't going to vote for Obama in the first place. However, solid Catholic majorities support his positions. Moreover, his position is very popular with women who represent the majority of independent and swing voters. Championing the rights of women to protect their health and ability to plan their families will never hurt Obama politically. Even as national Catholic healthcare associations support the compromise, along with the president of Notre Dame and leaders of other Catholic universities, the bishops are more isolated and, even worse, irrelevant to the serious moral discussions that have to go on in this nation. Constantly supporting regressive social positions...discriminating against women and gays even as the hypocrisy of their stance is obvious continues to undercut any moral credibility the American Catholic hierarchy may have once enjoyed.