Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Occupy the Church: The 98 percent

I've written two posts on why I think the HHS mandate is a huge victory for women's rights, why I believe it in no way violates religious freedom, and why providing a broad religious exemption is caving to extremism.

Yesterday, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, published an op-ed in USA Today, affirming that the mandate is necessary and that it respects religion. In the piece, which was obviously a response to outcry from certain religious groups, she talks about how the mandate has no effect on the conscience clause protections for medical providers and that the mandate does not cover abortifacients, as some religious groups have falsely been claiming. She also brings attention to the fact that 28 states, including California and New York, already require contraception to be covered by insurance. Eight of these states have no religious exemption whatsoever. The religious exemption adopted by the federal government, one that provides exemptions for places of worship and religiously-affiliated organizations that can prove that the majority of their employees are of the same faith, is the same as the policy already in place in California, Oregon, and New York. I was actually quite surprised to learn this, given that the Archbishop of New York has been incredibly vocal about the fact that he opposes the federal legislation. But if what Sebelius says is true (and I'm going to assume it is) then nothing will even change for Catholic institutions in the state of NY. So why is he so upset and why does he feel like the federal legislation is an additional assault on his religious liberty? And why does he feel like his religious beliefs should trump the rights of the women who are the life blood of the Catholic schools, hospitals, and even churches in New York?

 I'm reminded of a conversation I had recently with a friend, B, who is Catholic, has an M.A. in Theology, and teaches theology at a very conservative Catholic school. Her insurance provides coverage of contraception, even though she works for an uber-Catholic school. She is appalled by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' outrage over the mandate and angry that they are monopolizing the conversation on how Catholics feel about coverage of contraception. In addition to the fact that most women will use contraception, she pointed out that there are already very many Catholic institutions that do provide coverage of contraception. These institutions obviously do so without feeling that they are somehow terrible Catholics or violating any religious dogma, but even they are silenced by the USCCB.

I think B raises an important issue about questioning who the USCCB speaks for and even who we think of when we think of the Catholic Church. She's also left me thinking quite a bit about how women and men within the Catholic Church who do not follow the USCCB's extremist and minority opinion can make their voices heard. How do these women, the 98 percent if you will, make it clear that they are the majority? Is there a way to change that power dynamic if they stay within the Church?

I feel like I'm inundated with anti-choice, or "pro-life," ideology day in and day out. And it is exhausting because it is an attack on ME and my rights. It's not just political, it is personal. But over the past week, watching the whole Komen/Planned Parenthood saga unfold, I've been inspired by how many women and men stood up for reproductive rights. They made their voices heard and the consequences are enormous, not only in that they forced Komen to re-fund Planned Parenthood and provide life-saving cancer screenings, but by showing that the majority of Americans believe in women's rights and reproductive rights; that they care about women's health. Most women use contraception and, according to a recent Gallup poll, 77% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal. Can we keep the momentum from the Komen situation going and change the conversation on reproductive rights once and for all? Can Catholic women change the conversation about what the Church believes? If they expressed their outrage over restricting access to contraception, could they make the USCCB back down, shut up, or even change their position, as Komen did? Can the 98 percent Occupy the Catholic Church?


  1. Amen sister! I will keep my eye out on the Op-Eds about this one... I've been thinking of writing one but there haven't been many comment-worthy articles written that I've seen.

    Very interesting about how 28 states had already passed similar legislation--I didn't know that!


  2. Have you seen this? http://publicreligion.org/research/2012/02/january-tracking-poll-2012/

  3. Growing up Catholic, it always bothered me why the Church would be teaching about birth control methods in "Family Life" and even in the weekly bulletin, but did not necessarily discuss the reality of families in our parish. True, there were families with 6-10 children, but many were more in the 3-5 range, meaning that likely those families used birth control to space out and plan the number of children. It makes sense that 98% of Catholics would use some form of birth control (other than NFP).

    The disconnect between this vast majority and the Church hierarchy can be seen as either positive or more sinister at its core (or some degree of both):
    (1) Positive: Life is sacred. Catholics (and many other conservative groups) believe life begins at conception. Combined, these two mean that the Church and its people should be decidedly "pro-life" in the fullest sense. For many, that means no abortion, no death penalty, and even no war (other than in self-defense).

    (2) The men who "run" the institutional Church want to control women's sexuality and reproduction. Without this sustained effort over the ages, women would've gained more agency, and therefore equality, with men - both inside and outside of the Church.

    "The basis of women's oppression is gender. Simply being a woman has, historically, meant not being a full person but an inferior and derivative version of the human...Because the imputed inferiority of women is rooted specifically in their femaleness, the primary locus of male control has always been women's sexuality."

    [from "With Oil in Their Lamps: Faith, Feminism, and the Future" by Sandra M. Schneiders at the Madeleva Lecture in 2000.]

  4. @Robs - Thanks for sharing that link!

  5. @from two to one: Yes! I think it is terrible that there are no safe spaces for women and men to talk about their actual lived reality. We even know that some priests give dispensations on a private level, especially if there are medical reasons, but spouses still have to lurk around in silence as if they're doing something wrong. I'd love to see more dialogue about this within the Church, even if it has to come from the ground up. I have heard one priest talk publicly about the huge disconnect from the teaching and all the families with 2 and 3 kids in the pews. His solution was to suggest that we should ban women from dispensing communion, since they were all "in a state of sin" and were having "abortions" every day by taking oral contraceptives (apparently, the husbands were not in a state of sin even though they presumably knew that their wives were on birth control).

    You are, of course,right that many Catholics believe life is sacred and begins at conception. I think that belief should be respected,although I don't think it should interfere with the rights of people who believe differently. But I think the idea of extending the pro-life argument to oral contraceptives is ridiculous. That isn't science. It prevents contraception, and it isn't fair to say that that is a "pro-life" issue. If anything, it decreases the number of abortions, so having increased access to birth control should be the real pro-life issue. I would also, in a strange way, love it if more Catholics were more vocal about being anti-death penalty and anti-war. But they're just not. I grew up in Texas where the death penalty exists and never heard a single sermon against it, while we got inundated with anti-abortion sermons. And there was never any discussion about the ethics of war. If anything, my church got sucked into the whole "God's army against Satan" kind of rhetoric that gripped the rest of the country post-9/11.

    I think the real reason behind much of the anti-choice rhetoric, and especially against birth control, is your second option. Which is very sinister and sad. It also means, I think, that Catholic/Christian women have to turn the conversation around birth control from being just a pro-life issue, and make it one about gender, sexuality and hierarchies of power.

    And I love that last quote! Thanks for sharing it! And thanks, as always, for such an articulate comment.

  6. Excellent post! Thanks for mentioning stuff like *facts* and *what women actually think*. One day maybe the MSM will do the same.