U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement next to Secretary of HHS Kathleen Sebelius about contraceptive care funding in the press room of the White House in Washington, February 10, 2012.
This morning, President Obama announced what was called an “accommodation” on the rule relating to access to insurance coverage for birth control. While I was glad that the administration did not cave completely to the demands of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the reality is that this compromise relies on insurance companies to do the right thing, and gives victory #1 to the bishops on their “religious liberty” shopping list.
The story of how we got here is an important one, and it relies on a warped view of what Catholics believe about social justice.
For Catholics, social justice informs everything we do-how we relate to family members, neighbors, coworkers and society at large.
Our responsibility to help build a society that promotes social justice starts in an unexpected place: the imagination. Social justice requires having the vision to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes-what you would need if you were hungry, homeless, jobless-and then helping to fill that need. Refining that sensitivity is necessarily a work in progress, but it should be possible to identify a Catholic by the way he or she recognizes another’s needs while moving through the world.
This version of Catholicism stands in sharp contrast to the bishops’ response to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) original ruling that most U.S. employers would be required to provide no-copay contraceptive coverage, including employers at religiously affiliated organizations such as some hospitals, charities and universities.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recoiled in anger, claiming that the administration is opposing conscience rights and attacking religious liberty. Some bishops have pledged civil disobedience, including Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix, who claimed, “We cannot-we will not-comply with this unjust law.” The USCCB’s general counsel, Anthony Picarello, noted that they wanted an exemption for ALL employers, not just religiously affiliated ones. He told USA Today, “There has been a lot of talk in the last couple days about compromise, but it sounds to us like a way to turn down the heat, to placate people without doing anything in particular.” This meant, he said, removing the provision from the healthcare law altogether. “If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate,” he concluded. The bishops clearly want as many people as possible to be reliant on their employers’ say-so for contraceptive coverage, rather than that of their doctors.
But if they were to put down their swords, these clergymen would see the rest of us: ordinary people making the best decisions we can for our health and our families, many of us with ever-scarcer resources. The HHS decision is a clear example of good policy that makes the small decisions of everyday life a little easier. Those who don’t need, want or approve of birth control should at least have the vision to understand the private, considered place where moral actions like those related to family planning come from. This is actually the true Catholic position on the use of contraception, as it is on all moral matters: while the church may teach, the individual’s conscience must decide.
The much-heralded conscience remains a still, small voice at work in each of us. One of its calls is that we meet people where they already are and find out what they need. By reaching out to the least among us, Catholics say, “Yes, I see myself in you.”
It’s perplexing that the bishops have used their authority to declare that the vast majority of Catholic women who do use a modern form of birth control–only two percent rely on the natural family planning method endorsed by the Vatican–are beyond the pale. So much so that the campaign to avoid paying for this birth control overshadows any analysis of these women’s needs.
The bishops’ media firestorm is hollow, because it reflects a failure of the imagination. Instead, the bishops are called to a different, quieter kind of action. It starts with asking, “What do you need, my sister?” and being patient and humble enough to really listen. If the bishops are going to go around yelling to the heavens about their conscience rights being abrogated and their religious liberties being threatened, and all the while ignoring the health needs of women right in front of them, they’re never going to hear the conscience where it already is: quietly, assuredly, directing ordinary people in the sacred task of living everyday life.
Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice