‘Religious Freedom’ Issues, Part 2: Catholics and Contraception

Bishops listen to proceedings during the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, Maryland November 14, 2011. Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Doesn’t freedom of religion entail the right to be free of those aspects of your own religion’s teachings with which you disagree?

That Rick Santorum lost the Catholic vote in Ohio last night (by 12% percentage points in what was, overall, a squeaker of a race) is yet further evidence of something long observed by political scientists: Catholic-Americans are among the most independent-minded and unpredictable of the nation’s religious voters.

Let’s put this in perspective. White Evangelical Protestants are a lock to give between 70-80% of their ballot to a Republican in a presidential election. Jewish-Americans, save a few blips here and there (e.g., Ronald Reagan in 1980), can be counted on to do the same for Democratic candidates.

But Catholic Americans? You never know what they might do. Because they do what they want to do. Not what religious affiliation or Church teachings suggest they should do.

Diverse and complex, they often shun the good counsel of their bishops. They avoid facile allegiances to one party or another. And let it never be said that they vote along tribal lines either. Just ask Rick Santorum, or Newt Gingrich, or John Kerry (though there is some debate about this, it seems that the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate actually failed to carry his co-religionists).  To which I say: God bless Catholic Americans!

This observation is the prelude to my second installment about “religious freedom” as an issue in the 2012 election. In my last post, I argued that the term has morphed into a codeword for activism on a variety of issues, both domestic and international (I hope to get to the latter some day soon), of singular interest to Christians who are theologically and politically conservative.

Ergo, one ought be tremendously cautious about framing the current debate about HHS contraception mandates as a “religious freedom” issue pitting a massive, diverse, ecumenical array of Americans against the religion-hating (!) Obama administration.

Better to say that today’s “religious freedom” coalition is overwhelmingly comprised of theologically conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics with the lesser participation of conservatives in other faiths. (Read through the list of signatories on this petition about “the assault on religious liberty” and draw your own conclusions about who in America advocates on behalf of “religious freedom” as currently defined.)

Which brings us to the current HHS debate and a largely unrecognized conundrum it raises for Church-State relations. Up until a few weeks ago, access to contraception was rather unproblematically understood by the American government to be a public good.

Its reasons for doing so need not be elaborated upon here. But in brief those reasons can range anywhere from the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, to the prevention of abortion, to the prevention of socially transmitted diseases, to population control, to therapeutic benefits such as hormonal regulation, and so forth. Too, there is that whole idea of personal freedoms which we in the United States so rightly cherish.

A venerable and patriotic American institution, the Catholic Church, does not share any of these opinions regarding the beneficial aspects of contraception. To which secular theory also says “God bless!” Proto-secular thinkers from Luther to Locke were adamant that it is not the state’s job or right to question or challenge religious beliefs. “Thought is free,” as Luther famously phrased it and in accord with that dictum the secular state has nothing to say about what the Church believes.

But the state does have something to say about  how the Catholic Church or any religious group acts. And now we come to an intriguing nuance in the current “religious freedom” debate. For as regards contraception, the Church wishes to act in ways that would not appear to reflect the beliefs of its own members.

In recent days, much has been made about an incredible statistic. It is alleged that 98% of Catholic women have actually used the types of contraceptives that the Church does not wish to cover in its employee health-insurance packages. The statistic’s verisimilitude has been disputed by respectable journalists and I am more than willing to concede that this number is a bit high and the figure is slightly misleading.

But not that misleading. It seems abundantly clear to me that the very vast majority of America’s Catholics, men and women, do not share their Church’s views on contraception (and a majority appear to be at peace with the idea of employers providing coverage for contraceptives).

So here is the problem. Should the American government ignore the public good and the will of the majority of its Catholic citizens in deference to the theological beliefs of the Catholic Church?

To whom is the state accountable? An institution representing Catholics or Catholics themselves who on this issue seem to be exhibiting that aforementioned independent streak? Or neither, since it could be argued that the state ought not get in the business of religiously categorizing its citizens nor the institutions which mediate the provision of essential services (i.e., health care) to citizens.

Church-State issues are exceedingly complex and I am sympathetic to the Church’s position. Yet religious freedom must also entail not only the right of non-believing Americans to be free from religion. It must also–note this–encompass the right of believing Americans to be free from those aspects of their own faith with which they do not agree.





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