The theology of birth control politics

Looked at through the lens of legal precedent, President Obama’s February 10th announcement settled the issue of health care insurance … Continued

Looked at through the lens of legal precedent, President Obama’s February 10th announcement settled the issue of health care insurance covering contraception as preventive medicine.  The president’s compromise guaranteed both that religiously affiliated institutions would not be obliged to pay for such services but also that individuals might obtain them.  The distinction he drew followed current legal norms that both respect and also limit religious conscience.

JEWEL SAMAD

AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A young participant holds a placard and a rosary during a pro-life demonstration in front of the White House in Washington on February 16, 2012. Park police detained at least six religious activists while they were protesting against US President Barack Obama in response for mandating religious institutions coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception in their health plans. T

The Supreme Court ruled in 1990 (
Employment Division v. Smith: 494 U.S. 872
) that individuals in the workplace — smoking peyote according to their Native American religion – cannot claim that religious freedom exempts them from the law:  


View Photo Gallery: Scenes of religious faith meeting politics in the 2012 campaign.

The author of that majority opinion in 1990 was Justice Antonin Scalia, who added: “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.” 

The 1990 decision concerned persons employed by non-religious organizations and it must be paired with the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor Decision.  That later ruling protects the theology within church practice from government interference.  Taken together, both decisions provide the fair approach to religious liberty that balances individuals and churches, as the president’s compromise was intended to affirm. 

Instead of putting the issue to rest, however, Washington has witnessed a new round of acrimony including proposed legislation that allows individuals to nullify provisions of law objectionable to that person’s theological beliefs.  No longer would it be enough to protect individual practice and the independence of religious institutions: the law would enable one person’s theology to restrict what others may do.  The right to practice of my own religion, according to this thinking, allows me to limit the rights of others. 

JEWEL SAMAD

AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Two children hold a placard as they join other Christian religious activists during a pro-life demonstration in front of the White House in Washington on February 16, 2012.

But if, as the Supreme Court has ruled, religion cannot be invoked to make peyote legal when it is illegal, can religion be invoked to make illegal the birth control pill when it is legal?  The theocratic principle that religion trumps the state is ably defended by On Faith blogger Jordan Sekulow, among others, it would give any employer’s theology the power to overrule everyone else’s practice.  Taken literally, his stance might also justify, for example, the beliefs of radical Islamists who, as a matter of theology, think that government must sit under the authority of religion. Perhaps this prospect explains the fear of Justice Scalia that legalizing legal exemption for one religion will lead to anarchic surrender to all of them.

It should not come to this.  Theology also explains to believers how to treat non-believers.  I think the “other” Scalia – Elizabeth – insightfully identifies the importance of the Catholic theology of cooperation with governmental laws that do not perfectly reflect one’s religion. She scolds the president for not paying greater heed to this theology.  She’s right: but I would ask if “listening to the bishops” requires that Obama obey them.  Moreover, are not also the bishops supposed to pay attention to the theology of cooperation?

If the bishops so chose, writes Dr. Stephen Schneck, they could avail themselves of the theology of indirect cooperation invoked by other Catholics such as Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association. This theology already allow us to pay taxes that support capital punishment that violates church teachings or which finance unjust wars. Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI has lifted the absolute ban on use of condoms in order to fight AIDS – a greater good.  Our theological argument is and has been since the time of Augustine (De Ordine 2:4) and Aquinas (ST 2-2.62.5.2) that Catholics can give indirect support to laws in conflict with church teaching because such support is not the same as directly engaging in sinful behavior.   Moreover, both saints argue for situations where a greater good is accomplished by following the code of civic order than in disrupting it. 

Choosing the theology of the pope and Doctors of the Church about such political matters is something the USCCB should seriously consider.

 

 

  • Bluefish2012

    I don’t usually agree with you, Mr. Stevens-Arroyo, but this piece is well-argued. I will be interested to read whatever the bishops have to say on this. Maybe they will have second thoughts about their second thoughts.

  • Bluefish2012

    I do have to add to my first comment that I’m still not entirely satisfied with the parallel between religious beliefs and such prohibitions as those against peyote and polygamy. In both those cases there are strong arguments that practice of those beliefs harms civil order. So, if for example, the RCC decided that snake-handling, based on scripture, was an activity protected by its beliefs, the state would have a right to outlaw it nonetheless because it would be a demonstrably dangerous practice.

    But how is not providing birth control a dangerous practice–especially when the Church must choose insurers who are *forced* to provide for it? Pregnancy after all is not an illness, and birth control is still readily available to anyone who does not share the Church’s beliefs?

    That being the case, is the President’s play more of a cynical attempt to curry favor with Catholics who dissent on this issue? I’ll think about this during the “Screwtape Letters” play I’ll be attending this weekend.

  • khogan53

    This isssue is about the constitutionality of a regulation (not legislation) that requires that all women of reproductive age undergo mandatory counseling, receive free birth control, free abortifacients (i.e. Ella) and free sterilizations. The regulation is vague, and open to future interpretation.. The Catholic Church, a 2,012 year old institution, disapproves of these practices. This has been well established historically. It is ridiculous to imply that the Church’s moral beliefs can be relegated to the status of peyote smoking.

    Futhermore, stating that Augustine and Aquinas agreed that Catholics can give indirect support to this type of laws is disingenuous. These doctors of the Church sought only to comfort those living in impossible circumstances. I shudder to think that our fledgling democracy ( a mere 200 year old) offers only the limited freedoms and protections of the Roman Empire. St. Augustine encourages us, ” An unjust law is no law at all”.

  • Elohist

    No khogan, the issue is about preventive health care. Giving out birth control pills is only covered when prescribed, and the reasons for that have to concern health. 75 of the 90 theologians chosen by Blessed John XXIII agreed with this line of thought, so it really is not strange that Catholics a half century later agree. Please don’t ridicule peyote smoking as a religious rite. It is centuries older than the teaching on birth control pills and concerns the purifiication of the body and mind as preparation for prayer. Your arrogance borders on racism.
    I looked up the reference in the column and the “impossible circumstances” you describe was about legalized prostitution — the reality in Las Vegas today, and certainly not limited to Roman Empire.
    Finally, you begin by pompously noting that the issue is about a regulation and not about law, and then cite Augustine about law. You don’t make much sense and your arrogance is annoying.

  • mbc7

    Cooperating with evil would make for an interesting discussion if this was 1960 and we lived in communist Poland. But we don’t. The Constitution is clear, .. Congress shall make no law… Sure the courts added a compelling interest limitation that also constrains free speech (most porn is free speech, extremely offensive porn is not). Obama can’t come close to the porn standard. As for the native American tradition, Congress passed a law overturing the decision, so it moot. (The Court then ruled Congress could not impose the rule on the States and for some reason, Congress didn’t respond by conditioning the States acceptance of federal funds on the allowing religious rights. Obviously,private employeers can set their own standards and can cover birth control, so the entire dispute has nothing to do with birth control.

  • usapdx

    Face the fact that most USA RCs do not fully agree or obey the RCC teaching on birth control. Just ask them or look at their family size. The RCC or any other religion cannot take away a right from any American account of our supreme law, the Constitution. Religious freedom was from WE THE PEOPLE by the supreme law, the Constitution. The right of conscience is only a human thought which over the years that religions have wanted it’s views fully in placed in the member,s conscience.

  • david6

    This is not a law about religion. It is a law about what insurance companies have to cover. The bishops having lost this battle to the laity want to have a do-over.

  • amelia45

    No, khogan. No one is forced to take a pill or be sterilized. No one is forced to listen to a doctor talk about contraceptives, abortions, or anything else. No doctor is forced to write a prescription for “the Pill” or forced to participate in a sterilization procedure. No pharmacist is required to fill a prescription for a drug he/she thinks evil. No Catholic hospital or medical practice is required to act in any way that personally offends them.

    But – BUT – the bill respects each persons right to make those decisions for themselves.

    The regulations actually protect individual freedom by not allowing an employer to require an employee to live by a faith he/she does not hold.

  • amelia45

    What the HHS regulations do is assure that no one can be forced to live by a religious belief not his own.

    The freedom of religion is not just a freedom to practice one’s own religion, it is the right to be free from being coerced to live by someone else’s religion.

  • Chip_M

    I was about to write pretty much the exact same comment. I usually disagree strongly with his essays but this one is spot on.

  • mistermike

    Wow Anthony, your article is so far off the mark that I can only assume you are being intentionally erroneous to up your ratings. You violate pretty much every facet of logic. Where to begin…
    First no persons rights are being violated by those seeking to protect the first amendment. No woman wil be denied birth control pills. Every woman will have freedom of choise. To imply otherwise, as you repeatedly do is not honest. The reverse is true. People who feel human life and human rights begin at conception, whether you agree or not, are being denied the abilty to help others in hospitals, nursing centers, clinics etc in accordance with their beliefs. Do YOU want the government bureaucrat to be the determiner of YOUR morality? Let me repeat… the religious position DOES NOT DENY anyone anything! It is the goverment MANDATE that does. You should be ashamed for writing this illogical untruthful agenda filled (did PP write it for you?) article. SHAME.

  • anny2

    Since 1991, however, Oregon law has allowed the sacramental use of peyote.

  • outragex

    If Sharia law if bad when Muslims advocate for it then why is Catholic law okay when bishops advocate for it? Would allowing the bishops to override US law set a bad precedent for Muslims or other religions who want to impose their theology and home country tradtiions in the US?

  • Apoorsinner

    I think Mr. Arroyo-Stevens is missing the point here. The bishops are not trying to force anyone to do anything; they just don’t want to pay for what they consider evil. Anyone who works for a Catholic organization should not expect to have her contraception, sterilization and morning after pills paid for — that’s not forcing her to do anything. To do it the way the Obama HHS mandate states, the churches MUST pay for this evil. The so-called “compromise” is no compromise at all, as it just is a paperwork change on who pays — what insurance company would not charge more when it has to pay thousands more in uncompensated benefits? And by the way, there should be room for Catholic business owners to refuse to pay for this sort of thing too — there should be room for their consciences too. And furthermore, if it’s the pill and sterilization this year that we have to pay for, it’ll be abortions next year. This is just the beginning if Obama gets his way.

  • ccnl1

    Why the Christian Right no longer matters in presidential elections:

    Once again, all the conservative votes in the country “ain’t” going to help a “pro-life” presidential candidate, i.e Mitt Romney, Newton Leroy Gingrich, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, in 2012 as the “Immoral Majority” rules the country and will be doing so for awhile. The “Immoral Majority” you ask?

    The fastest growing USA voting bloc: In 2008, the 70+ million “Roe vs. Wade mothers and fathers” of aborted womb-babies” whose ranks grow by two million per year i.e. 78+ million “IM” voters in 2012.

    2008 Presidential popular vote results:

    69,456,897 for pro-abortion/choice BO, 59,934,814 for “pro-life” JM.

    And the irony:
    And all because many women fail to take the Pill once a day or men fail to use a condom even though in most cases these men have them in their pockets. (maybe they should be called the “Stupid Majority”?)

    The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and STDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other safer birth control methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and STDs.

  • ccnl1

    Why the Christian Right no longer matters in presidential elections:

    Once again, all the conservative votes in the country “ain’t” going to help a “pro-life” presidential candidate, i.e Mitt Romney, Newton Leroy Gingrich, Ron Paul or Rick Santorum, in 2012 as the “Immoral Majority” rules the country and will be doing so for awhile. The “Immoral Majority” you ask?

    The fastest growing USA voting bloc: In 2008, the 70+ million “Roe vs. Wade mothers and fathers” of aborted womb-babies” whose ranks grow by two million per year i.e. 78+ million “IM” voters in 2012.

    2008 Presidential popular vote results:

    69,456,897 for pro-abortion/choice BO, 59,934,814 for “pro-life” JM.

    And the irony:
    And all because many women fail to take the Pill once a day or men fail to use a condom even though in most cases these men have them in their pockets. (maybe they should be called the “Stupid Majority”?)

    The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the Pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and STDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or condoms properly and/or use other safer birth control methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and STDs.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    “The Supreme Court ruled in 1990 ( Employment Division v. Smith: 494 U.S. 872) that individuals in the workplace — smoking peyote according to their Native American religion — cannot claim that religious freedom exempts them from the law: ”

    HOWEVER, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

    They also shall make not laws “…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

  • Catken1

    So what’s next, the bishops telling their employees, “Sorry, you can’t use your salaries to pay for anything we deem wrong – we don’t want to pay for evil things?”
    Should there be room for your employer to deny you coverage for any pregnancy or child past your second, on the grounds that they believe their religion demands a commitment to ZPG?
    Should they be able to fire you for not having an abortion, and thus requiring them to give you a salary that will be spent on a third child?
    Should a Jehovah’s Witness employer be allowed to deny you a life-saving blood transfusion? What if you can’t find a job elsewhere, and are forced to watch your child die because your employer doesn’t want you to “sin” by saving his or her life?
    If we let employers tell employees what health benefits they can get, what’s acceptable? If we let employers tell employees what choices they can make with their fairly-earned compensation, what’s next? Will it always be religious choices you agree with that are forced on you?
    As for the cost increasing, I suspect unwanted pregnancies cost insurance companies a WHOLE lot more than contraception.

  • Catken1

    “People who feel human life and human rights begin at conception, whether you agree or not, are being denied the abilty to help others in hospitals, nursing centers, clinics etc in accordance with their beliefs.”

    Can you not help anyone who disagrees with your personal beliefs?

    And what human rights does any born human have to use another person’s body parts to sustain their life – even to reside inside their personal organs – without that person’s consent? Or do you believe that human life begins at conception for the fetus, and ends for the woman, making her just another bit of property?

    What about a doctor who believes that Catholics are subhuman property because they have participated in sinful behavior (as Catholics believe that women are subhuman property because they’ve had sex), and ought to have their bodies’ resources harvested to preserve the lives of good, sweet, cute innocents of other faiths, whom the doctor believes are more important than they? Are those doctors denied the right to serve others because they cannot take a blood or platelet donation from you (someone their religion deems less than human) against your will in order to preserve the “human rights and human life” of those people their religion deems to be human?
    Are you letting a government bureaucrat determine their moral and religious beliefs because that government bureaucrat protects your right to bodily autonomy and sovereignty against the dictates of their anti-Catholic religion?
    You are free to believe that a pregnant woman is a nonhuman piece of property if you like. But the Constitution denies you the right to treat her as one if you cannot persuade her through reasoned argument that she is one.

  • jila1

    Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo asks…”as the Supreme Court has ruled, religion cannot be invoked to make peyote legal when it is illegal, can religion be invoked to make illegal the birth control pill when it is legal?”
    NO ONE IS BEING PREVENTED FROM OBTAINING BIRTH CONTROL OR AN ABORTION!
    let me repeat that: NO ONE IS BEING PREVENTED FROM OBTAINING BIRTH CONTROL OR AN ABORTION!
    If you take you the high and low of what Planned Parenthood says contraception costs per year the average comes out to $425 (That also is the average cost of a first trimester abortion) That breaks down to only $35 a month. So it is not an issue of the cost of contraception without insurance.
    Mr. Stevens-Arroyo also writes, “Looked at through the lens of legal precedent…..” He should try looking at through the lens of the Constitution. Like maybe FIRST AMENDMENT. In fact through the lens of the first sentence of the First Amendment. “Congress shall make NO LAW respecting an establishment of religon or PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF. “
    This is a nothing more than a violation of the First Amendment.
    For President Obama to say that religiously affiliated institutions would not be obliged to pay for such services but the religious institutions insurance carrier will have provide to coverage of contraception for free is a compromise is nothing less than malfeasance and malversation.
    For Mr. Stevens-Arroyo to agree with it and defend it is simply asinine.

  • DOEJN

    The columnist addresses this issue and notes that Catholics already follow the law and pay taxes that go toward capital punishment and unjust wars, even though these also go against church teachings. In fact, I’m pretty sure *everyone* could find something they help pay for in taxes that they are morally opposed to. I know I can.

  • DOEJN

    “Pregnancy after all is not an illness…”

    I don’t think any illness I’ve ever had would mess with my body as much or cost as much money as pregnancy would.

    Contraception is used to treat other medical conditions such as acne, severe menstrual cramps, and chronic pain.

    Population explosion and children whom families cannot afford to provide for certainly hurt the social order.

  • Catken1

    “So it is not an issue of the cost of contraception without insurance. ”

    You do realize that there are people who have trouble affording an extra $35 a month?

    Suppose your employer docked your pay – your fairly-earned compensation, just as health insurance is – for every purchase of pork and alcohol you made, because they didn’t want to support sinful behavior with the salary they gave you. Is that OK with you, if it doesn’t end up costing you _much_?

    And a lack of birth control has far graver consequences for a woman than a lack of pork and alcohol would for you.

    Plus, if you tell religious employers that it’s OK to refuse to cover anything they object to, then what’s to stop a Jehovah’s Witness employer in a purely secular business from denying his employees blood transfusions? What’s to stop a Christian Scientist employer from refusing to cover any health care at all outside of prayer? Why should some employers be allowed to get out of requirements to provide fair compensation to their employees because of their religion, while the rest of us are left with higher costs to compensate for providing medical care to those the religious employees leave uncovered?

    Why is it your employer’s sacred right to determine what you may acquire with your lawfully-earned compensation, according to his religious beliefs rather than yours?

  • amelia45

    As a Catholic, I believe that my Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and Hindu neighbors should be free to make their own decisions about birth control.

    Bl John Henry Newman said: “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas, and, even though the eternal priesthood throughout the Church could cease to be, in it the sacerdotal principle would remain and would have a sway.”

    And, being a man of humor, he also said: “I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”

  • jila1

    I would be okay with that. If however, it became a new policy and I wasn’t ok with it, I would begin looking for new job. There are in fact, current secular employers who will fire you if use ‘your fairly-earned compensation’ to smoke!
    This case with the Catholic Church is totally different. The government is MANDATING the employer and/or you purchase insurance.
    You ask, “what’s to stop a Jehovah’s Witness employer in a purely secular business from denying his employees blood transfusions?” If you are talking about physically stopping an employee? Being illegal should stop him. No employer can deny an employee the right to seek medical treatment. That does not mean the employer has to pay for it or provide coverage for it.
    If you mean stop the transfusion by way of no coverage for it; if the business is secular than is not religious…. and is not protected under the First Amendment.
    I do not have coverage for allergy testing or shots. If I have an allergic reaction to something I could die. That DOES NOT mean employer or myself should be FORCED by the government to provide that coverage, especially if it goes against the faith of the institution I work for! It DOES mean I have to be RESPONSIBLE about staying away from the those allergens or pay for the medical services myself.
    You ask, Why should religious employers be exempt from or get to determine what coverage employees get? Based on that question, why should secular employers get to determine what coverage I have to pay for based on beliefs that are in direct conflict with my faith. It is because they are the ones offering you the group insurance. So, I say either purchase our own insurance or find an employer that has comes closet to the coverage you want. a month. If you see the issue is the cost of contraception without insurance, Planned Parenthood among other such agencies can help, and you can make a contribution – its tax deductible.

  • jila1

    If the stakes are of such ‘graver consequence’ than perhaps the said woman ought look into the only 100 % guaranteed type of birth control and that is self control also called ‘abstinence.’ It has the added bonus of being free for those who can not manage to come up $35 dollars a month.
    I will address your questions and remarks but first let me point out that the Catholic Church is not trying to thrust a NEW coverage policy on its employees. This has been their policy all along. It is, Obama who is thrusting his NEW policy on the Catholic Church (along with other religious institutions of similar beliefs), and by doing that he is basically violating the very first clause of the First Amendment.
    You ask if I would be okay with my employer docking my ‘fairly-earned compensation’, just as health insurance is – for every purchase of pork and alcohol I made? Yes, if I willing choose to work there, knowing it was it is a religious institution and that this has been their policy all along, I would be okay with that. If however, it became a new policy and I wasn’t ok with it, I would begin looking for new job. There are in fact, current secular employers who will fire you if use ‘your fairly-earned compensation’ to smoke!
    This case with the Catholic Church is totally different. The government is MANDATING the employer and/or you purchase insurance.
    You ask, “what’s to stop a Jehovah’s Witness employer in a purely secular business from denying his employees blood transfusions?” If you are talking about physically stopping an employee? Being illegal should stop him. No employer can deny an employee the right to seek medical treatment. That does not mean the employer has to pay for it or provide coverage for it.
    If you mean stop the transfusion by way of no coverage for it; if the business is secular than is not religious…. and is not protected under the First Amendment.
    I do not have coverage for allergy testing or shots. If I have an allergic reaction to something I could