Bishops cannot get Catholic women off birth control

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times (May 23, 2012)

America’s conservative Catholic bishops are so worried that some woman in their employ will get access to birth control that they have filed 12 lawsuits against the federal government. What they are failing to see is a much bigger challenge that should have them truly worried: the independence of Catholic women.

At issue in the lawsuits is the Obama administration’s pending regulation that would require church-run institutions, like universities and hospitals, to provide coverage for contraceptives as part of any employee healthcare package. The Roman Catholic Church, of course, condemns birth control and equates some contraceptive methods with abortion. This dispute erupted in February and spilled over into the Republican presidential primaries, onto the floor of Congress and, notoriously, into a three day Rush Limbaugh rant in which he labeled a pro-contraceptive woman a slut.

When Republicans saw that siding with the bishops was causing them to rapidly lose ground with female voters, they tried to change the subject. And once the Obama administration massaged the regulation to mandate that insurers, not employers, provide contraceptive coverage, the brouhaha seemed to die down.

But now it's back. The insurance loophole is not big enough for the consciences of some bishops and leaders of Catholic institutions to pass through. Women who work for them will still be getting contraceptives as a benefit of their employment. Conservative bishops have been very vocal in their condemnation of the Obama administration and they are organizing a “Fortnight for Freedom” to run from June 21 to July 4 in which they plan to highlight threats to religious freedom -- which they consider the contraceptive mandate to be.

Out of 195 Catholic dioceses in the U.S., though, just 13 are going to court. In all those nonlitigating sectors of the church, there are thousands of Catholics, including quite a few bishops, who think the lawsuits are not only premature, but that the conservative bishops have turned this into a partisan, anti-Obama crusade.

In California, church leaders are complaining that, before anyone rushed to court, the dispute should have been addressed by the entireU.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Reportedly, lawyers for the California bishops have sent a letter to the national bishops’ group that calls the lawsuits “ill-advised” and “imprudent.”

Moderate priests and bishops are refraining from participation in the “Fortnight for Freedom” because they see it as too tainted by pro-Republican election-year politics. While they share some of the concerns about contraceptive coverage, they believe the issue has been hijacked by right-wingers in the church.

So, there is revolt in the clerical ranks. And if the conservative bishops don’t see that as a problem (and, since they have so successfully stifled progressive Catholic voices in recent years, they may not), they should think about all those Catholic women who are weary of old, unmarried men telling them how to be holy. The undisputed fact that the vast majority of Catholic women use birth control suggests that the bishops are defending a prohibition that seems absurd to most of their parishioners.

Catholic women have had further reason for disenchantment in recent days. Conservative Catholic leaders have attacked Melinda Gates for pledging $4 billion of Gates Foundation money to provide contraceptives to 120 million women in developing countries. Gates, herself, is a Catholic who was educated by the nuns at the Ursuline Academy of Dallas. Those nuns have given Gates their strong support, telling her she is “living under Catholic values.”

But, of course, we know what the conservative bishops think of all those liberal nuns. Just recently they came down hard on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for, among other things, being too cozy with the White House on health reform, including the contraceptive mandate. 

The men in the church hierarchy may not think they really need the nuns; the good sisters are, after all, an aging and dying breed. But the bishops should be wary of pushing the broader sisterhood of Catholic women too far. Right now, Catholic women are simply ignoring them. One day, they may abandon them.