Did the bishops forget about women?

LARRY DOWNING REUTERS U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement next to Secretary of HHS Kathleen Sebelius about contraceptive care … Continued



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


  • PaulSpence

    No, the bishops didn’t forget about women, they just don’t give a damn about them.

  • saymyname

    Did the Bishops forget about women? They’d have to have thought of them in the first place to forget about them.

  • rwsmls

    Talking about mandated actions,I did not read that it was mandatory that women TAKE birth control pills,etc. Seems to me,a 75 year old male,women should be given the CHOICE to manage child birth. In the Philippines, a very poor (and very Catholic) country there are villages making an economic comeback in part because they are doing family planning.

  • picturefan

    Jon — contraceptives have been readily available and affordable for decades. They are free from many organizations and can be purchased for as little as $15 per month. Over 90% of employers already provide contraceptive coverage. Yet that wan’t enough for the Obama Administration. They felt compelled to force all religious-based institutions to provide free contraceptives or face extinction though stiff financial penalties. This is the policy you support as a Catholic? It was an absurd over-reach that upset even many on the left. The last three weeks cannot be undone. The mask is off this President’s hard-left, radical agenda. This episode should be a Red Flag warning to all Americans who value their constitutional freedoms.

  • cameroon

    These bishops are the same group who have done whatever is possible to protect their pedophile brethren including sending one of their own to the Vatican to avoid prosecution. And I am supposed to care what they think ? Give me a break. They should all go to prison.

  • cjwilsey

    You truly are a utterly clueless as the bishops. Are you here posing as a lay person, your grace?

  • cjwilsey

    But, that would be sensible, and we can’t have that can we?

  • speedyfastcat

    Bishops have not heard about separation between church and state? Church more than happy to accept monies from US for all sorts of projects but has the balls to scream about “First Amendment” issues! As far as I am concerned, the Catholic Church has long lost any moral or ethical authority to speak on anything given their “stellar” record in dealing with predator priests and acting to preserve the “church” over the victims that were raped and molested by serial priests, sort of like child molester Sandusky in the Penn State scandal.

  • hammangj

    Unfortunately the author and most commenters miss the real issue here. The bishops misunderstand the role of a democratic government. Government does not exist to enforce the moral/ethical beliefs of any religious or secular group. Nor does our government have the right to require a religious organization to behave in ways that organization considers immoral or unethical. There is ground in the middle that we need to claim where government doesn’t violate First amendment freedoms and bishops don’t demand that government do their work of ethical and moral persuasion. Such ground leaves both to do their work and to make ours a civil and free society.

  • FreetoThink

    “…while the church may teach, the individual’s conscience must decide.”
    Jon, where did you get that idea? Wouldn’t it be nice if the Catholic Church worked that way. It doesn’t.

    The Church hierarchy decides. It decided that using artificial birth control is a mortal sin. Dying unabsolved condemns the birth control user to hell. That’s the cruel, dogmatic Church teaching.

    Those who see this teaching as evil and noxious should find another religion, as many Catholics have. Or perhaps they should free themselves of superstition and mythology and seek no religion.

  • david6

    The bishops have demonstrated that they are completely indifferent to women in the church, that they don’t care about women in daily life, even though they rely on them to keep their congregations going. Catholic women need to speak up or leave, these misogynists who run the RCC will never reform on their own.

    Five hundred years ago, the RCC was so corrupt that it issued in the Reformation era and the wars that followed. At least they are not in any position to go to war any more, but they clearly need to reform their corruption again.

  • frankyburns

    These bishops are TOO hypocritical — to think that of all things the big thing weighing on their consciences is whether their women workers are using insurance for contraception. I just don’t believe it. They are just trying to make themselves look persnickety and good, but really coming off as silly.

  • khogan53

    Mr. O’Brien is in error. Catholics are informed by the love of God and this love informs our attitudes toward social justice.

    There is nothing in Catholic scripture or tradition that indicates God desires restraints on pregnancy or birth. “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth,” is a part of the Lord’s prescription for a good life.

    Imagine that!

  • mackey1

    I wish the Democrats would stop the “spin” on this. This is NOT about contraception, this is biggest assault on religious liberty in the history of this country and it represents nothing but a giant step for secular totalitarianism. Our Bill of Rights are the only protection we have for ANY type of totalitarianism, this MUST NOT BE ALLOWED to stand.

    Also maybe the Democrats can answer for us all, WHY were Muslims, Christian Scientists, Amish, American Indians, Mennonites, and about 50 Unions and 50 Corporations exempted from this bill but NOT the Catholic Church? This cheap, unthoughtful persecution of the Catholic Church will NOT stand there are 80 million of us and NOW is the time to UNITE!

  • usapdx

    No religion can take away a right from any American account the Constitution is our supreme law by the people and NOT by any religion what so ever.

  • usapdx

    Most USA citizens that are RCs DO NOT fully ( 100% ) agree with the RCC teaching on birth control. By what power does a human have to make a rule that if violated is SIN?

  • frankyburns

    Religious people are being such boors about this. If you don’t like government, go somewhere and start an anarchy. But this is the US. Love it or leave it.

  • nkri401


    Do it like the sin about eating meat on Fridays.

    Just occurred to me if the meat industry had more lobbyist to the Vatican than fishing industry

  • DeborrahC

    The entire argument about limiting birth control and access to abortions has been male dominated. Setting aside the religious factor for a minute, why is it that these old WHITE men think they have the right to dictate what goes on in the wombs of million of WOMEN, particularly women of color? This issue goes much deeper than is presented here. Around the globe women are being pushed by men to breed children they don’t want via laws, lack of affordable birth control, and lack of access to medically safe abortions if a woman so chooses. I’m about to become a serious activist for women because I’ve reached my limit of these crusty old fools telling women what we can and cannot do with our bodies. Oh, and if insurance is limited for birth control for females, then males don’t need Viagra or any of those erectile dysfunction drugs. I’d say that was a fair swap.

  • Sara121

    The ground in the middle was the exemption as originally stated: non-profit organization whose primary purpose was the inculcation of religious values, hired primarily those the same religion, and served primarily of the same religion. This was primarily about universities and hospitals, which make money, have a secular purpose, and hire and serve those who are not necessarily of the same religion.

    The other middle ground would be for those organizations that would have been exempted to simply forego any tax monies such as student loans, research grants, medicaid, and medicare.

    The Administration sought a balance between the 1st and 14th AMendments on this and the Bishops, as you pointed out, misunderstand the role of a secular, democratic government, and rejected it.

  • pintolinda

    It baffles me that the Bishops spend the amount of time and energy on banning birth control, but are silent when viagra is readily available through insurance for men. A message???

  • jubilie13

    I’d be careful in saying things about race and gender. You have a problem following a “white man” in religion? Then do people have a right to not want to follow a “black man” for our country? Absolutely not. This issue has nothing to do with race or gender. It is a freedom to practice religion. I am a woman just like you and I know the world needs men and women. This is not a battle of the sexes or races.

  • jubilie13

    This Catholic woman supports the Bishops! This is an integral part of our faith and I am proud to stand behind them and say thank you for protecting the dignity of ALL humans.

    Corruption is a fault of Man, not the Church. The Bishops speaking up is the reformation for all Catholics who do not know the immorality of birth control. The Church is clearly defining the Natural and Moral Laws given to us by God.

  • jubilie13

    The Church does not condemn anyone to hell. Every person chooses for themselves. The Church helps us understand the Natural and Moral Laws given to us by God and it is up to each person to follow those laws.

    Catholics do not get their teachings by “man” but by God. Every Catholic that follows the doctrine of the Church FULLY agrees with the teaching on birth control.

  • cwallenpoole

    Non-religious people are being such boors about this. If you don’t like people’s freedom to act, ability to voice complaint, and effect change in bad policy, go somewhere and start a dictatorship. But this is the US. Love it or Leave it.

    More to the point though: if you prefer to shut down the biggest charitable organization in the country, then, by all means, you shut them down. And then you can go outside of all of those Catholic hospitals and say, “I’m sorry, but you can’t get your surgery here, because they disagree with us on this policy.” And then you can walk over to the local homeless shelter and kick them all out saying, “The Church does not support the government, so everyone out.” When you’re done there, you can go to the immigration and naturalization department of Catholic Charities and say, “Sorry, but no immigrants can be helped anymore, the Church won’t bow to our demands.”

    If the non-exempt programs of the Church shut down, cities would be devastated. In Paterson, NJ, the biggest teen shelter, the biggest food bank (and a couple of minor food banks), the biggest homeless and utilities assistance programs (including emergency homeless support, for those whose houses burn down and and need a place for the night NOW), and the *only* free legal support to immigrants are all within walking distance of each other and run by the Church. The Church also has a major investment in St. Joseph’s hospital (in the same town).

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