Susan Buchanan

What if it’s not about birth control?

In Ministry on February 25, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Several of my friends and colleagues have been writing about the controversy about the requirement in the Affordable Care Act to provide women and men with contraception, including birth control pills, with no co-pays. Among them are Richard Heyduck and Frederick Schmidt. I’ve responded to both either in the comments following the article or on Facebook. I appreciate the opportunity to think through the challenges presented by the controversy and their thoughts about it.

In further discussion, Dr. Schmidt continues his thoughts about prejudice against Catholics in a personal way that includes some of his own family history. I had objected in his first post that calling Protestant failure to stand with the Catholic bishops prejudice went too far. I will not deny that prejudice against Catholics exists and much of the volatility of the rhetoric against the Roman Catholic Church and the US Council of Catholic Bishops has its roots in that prejudice. Equally, I think we have to own the misogyny in the rhetoric, typified by the infamous picture of the five men at the table to testify at the hearing of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Chairman Darrell Issa’s refusal to let a woman speak in favor of the US HHS ruling. Each form of prejudice is painful to its victims and leads many of us to respond to the controversy from wounds that are chronic and deep.

Where do we go in the conversation if prejudice is where we start? It’s a little like the Christian guitar player who says, “God gave me this song” which everyone knows means “therefore you can’t criticize it”. Is there a way to offer arguments for or against the ruling that aren’t about prejudice, but really are arguments about religious freedom or birth control? Obviously, I think there is, or I wouldn’t be writing. I won’t go into the things I love about the Roman Catholic Church or offer assurances that “some of my best friends are Catholic” because I would only be digging myself deeper into the ditch of prejudice.

So what if we offer a similar argument that’s not about birth control or about Roman Catholics? What if there were a large, powerful denomination that had a moral objection to safety regulations on construction sites because it’s God’s will that accidents happen? What if they insisted that they shouldn’t have to pay for hard hats because it’s a violation of their religious freedom? What if it was a hardship for a worker to have to pay for his own hard hat, but he didn’t qualify for assistance through other organizations that supplied low cost or free hard hats? What if he did qualify for a free hard hat, but the organizations that provided the hard hats were in jeopardy because the large, powerful denomination was also lobbying to decrease their funding based on the aforementioned objection to safety regulations?  If the majority of Americans believe, and there’s research to prove, that the use of hard hats on construction sites save lives, should this denomination be given a waiver in their construction projects because of their religious objection to safety regulations? Churches aren’t excluded from building codes or labor laws on the basis of religious freedom. Why should the RC Church be excluded from providing medication and devices that are considered protective for women and men by the medical community?

Part of the problem is that many see women who use contraception as wanton floozies who deserve what they get. There are many statements I’ve read and heard that relate contraception to inappropriate sexual activity rather than considering it a normal supplement to health care that includes family planning, disease prevention, and alleviation of suffering caused by hormonal imbalances.The majority of women who use birth control are married, in committed relationships, or are among the 58% who take the Pill for medical reasons like relief of migraines & endometriosis. I think it helps to picture the average American housewife when talking about contraception.

I appreciate that Dr. Schmidt is trying to encourage us to think theologically and ecclesiologically about the issue and agree that we’re not getting there. But I wonder if it’s because this is one of those times when it’s really about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Was Jesus supporting the Erastian notion of the church being subordinate to the state when he suggested that there are things that belong to God and there are things belong to the empire? If this argument  is a matter of religious liberty, then it seems to me that there is a conflict between the liberty of the RCC and the liberty of non-Catholics in their employ. Catholics are entitled to believe, to teach, and to practice a theology of life that prohibits birth control, but the government has the responsibility of protecting all of its citizens. Many denominations employ thousands of people who do not adhere to their beliefs through organizations structured in such a way that they can receive billions of tax dollars without violating the establishment clause. In doing so, they put these affiliated organizations under the realm of Caesar. While they may be doing good works in the name of God, they’ve intentionally funded themselves through Caesar. It’s no wonder we’re having a difficult time thinking theologically and ecclesiologicaly about the controversy when the churches themselves have taken it out of that realm.

  1. Thanks, Susan!

    At the end you observe: “Many denominations employ thousands of people who do not adhere to their beliefs through organizations structured in such a way that they can receive billions of tax dollars without violating the establishment clause. In doing so, they put these affiliated organizations under the realm of Caesar. While they may be doing good works in the name of God, they’ve intentionally funded themselves through Caesar. It’s no wonder we’re having a difficult time thinking theologically and ecclesiologicaly about the controversy when the churches themselves have taken it out of that realm.”

    Another way to look at it is to see that as time has passed the realm of society we call “government” (or “Caesar”) has expanded its purview. Once upon a time the role of the state vis-a-vis institutions like health care and education was minor or non-existent. Sometimes the church (or churches) were active in these areas well ahead of the state, sometimes even prodding the state to become involved. As the years passed, the economy of these areas became such that the state was more and more deeply involved. It is difficult now for any but the very wealthy to do education or health care without state involvement. Where the state does not fund the operation or system directly, it does so indirectly through funding of individuals’ interaction with these institutions (Medicare, Medicaid, Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, etc.).

    Some educational institutions have tried to get by without state involvement (I think of Grove City College as one example). As I recollect, this means that not only can they as an institution not accept any state funds, but also their students cannot accept any state aid. Once the state gives some aid, directly or indirectly, the state wants a say in what happens. Thus the more we rely on (and insist on) state aid in various areas, the more we are ceding control to the state. Often the state’s influences is entirely (or mostly) benign. Sometimes it’s not; sometimes the state’s influence is seen as pernicious.

    My own perspective is such that I value the role of middling institutions of society – churches, schools, families, marriages, associations, unions, guilds, etc., – that are reducible neither to the autonomous individual nor the collectivist state. For the past couple of centuries (well, since at least Hobbes & Locke) our culture has been pushing hard toward both ends, toward becoming more individualist and more statist, each playing the other off against the middling institutions. We give the state more power so it can defend out rights to do exactly what we want, both over against other individuals and against the middling institutions that are not fully cognizant or encouraging of our individualism.

    I feel this in myself. I want the institutions – both the state and the middling institutions I mentioned – to do for me what I want. I don’t want to submit to anything I don’t want. And yet my conception of the good says that I miss out on the highest goods to a large degree if I follow this path. There are goods I cannot experience unless I submit to the institutions of marriage, family, and the church – just to name three. I recognize that each of these middling institutions I’ve named can be corrupted and can do harm and evil. I also, however, think that eliminating them in favor of the omnicompetence and omnibenevolent state leaves us in the jaws of Leviathan (to use Hobbes’ term, but with the negative connotation from scripture).

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, Susan. If we keep working on these issues for a few years (or generations, or centuries) maybe we’ll figure it out.

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