Ever since the closing of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, conservative and liberal Roman Catholics have been deeply divided over church teachings, many of them concerning marriage and sexual matters. Those who are more conservative would like to see the teachings remain in place, while liberals would like to see drastic changes. Now, suddenly, after decades of internecine bickering, liberals and conservatives among Catholics have joined forces on an issue. Strangely enough, it involves artificial birth control, one of the sorest points between the two factions.
Specifically, a wide cross-section of liberal and conservative Catholics have united in opposition to a Jan. 20 rule issued by the federal Department of Health and Human Services as part of the implementation of “Obamacare.” The rule requires almost all private health insurance plans to provide coverage for all U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved prescription contraceptives. Health plans would also have to offer female sterilization as yet another “preventive service.” Companies would have to cover these things fully, with no co-pay for the patient. The penalty for employers who purchase health plans that don’t comply with the rule is about $2,000 per employee.
The Catholic Church, which views sex and procreation as inextricably intertwined, forbids both elective sterilization and any effort to prevent conception other than refraining from sexual contact. In response to a request by the U.S. Catholic bishops and some other religious groups that regard artificial contraception as immoral, Health and Human Services carved out a religious exemption for employers. But it was the narrowest possible exemption, covering only employers representing organizations whose primary mission is instructing members in their faith and that serve and employ mostly members of their own faith. In short, Catholic parish churches would qualify for the exemption. Catholic schools, colleges, hospitals, charities and social service agencies — all of which minister to all comers without regard to their religious affiliation — would not.
Not surprisingly, the American Catholic bishops have presented a nearly united front in opposition to the rule, scheduled to go into effect in 2013. The website CatholicVote.org lists 140 bishops, more than 70% of the 198 heads of U.S. Catholic dioceses, who have either issued or intend to issue statements opposing the mandate. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York accused the Obama administration of treating pregnancy and women’s fertility “as a disease.”
What is surprising is that prominent liberal Catholics — people who don’t even agree with the church’s position on contraception — have joined their voices in protest. One of them was E.J. Dionne, a widely syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. Dionne, who has been an Obama enthusiast since well before the 2008 election, accused the president in a recent column of having “utterly botched” the issue of contraceptive services. Dionne admitted that he wished “the church would show more flexibility on this question,” but he also pointed out that the sweeping mandate “encroached upon the church’s legitimate prerogatives” to ensure that its employment policies reflected its moral values.
This represents a breakthrough in the long-simmering animosity between conservative and liberal Catholics over how much the church should have changed in the wake of Vatican II. Besides contraception, practiced (according to polls) by more than 90% of sexually active Catholics despite the church’s prohibition, the issues that divide the two groups include divorce (the church forbids it, but liberals argue that the prohibition is unrealistic in today’s world), same-sex unions, the power of the papacy and admitting women to the all-male priesthood. When the clerical sex-abuse scandals surfaced in 2002, conservative Catholics blamed a woozy post-Vatican II mind-set that signaled that anything was permissible, while liberals pointed the finger at a hidebound hierarchy desirous of sweeping unpleasant truths under the rug.
But the issue of the government’s effort to curtail the freedom of religious institutions to conduct operations according to their moral principles seems to have galvanized a tenuous alliance between the Catholic left and the Catholic right. Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the ultra-progressive newspaper the National Catholic Reporter, declared that Obama had “lost my vote” after the rule was issued. He wrote: "[T]he president’s decision … essentially told us, as Catholics, that there is no room in this great country of ours for the institutions our church has built over the years.”
Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former archbishop of Los Angeles, used to be derided by Catholic conservatives for his hobnobbing with pro-abortion-rights Democratic politicians and for his expensive and avant-garde Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Yet Mahony has turned out to be one of the most vehement opponents of the new rule. “I cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience than this ruling today,” he wrote on his blog.
Part of the reason for liberal Catholics’ vehemence was their disappointment with Obama. Many liberal Catholics had defied the condemnation of their bishops to support the president’s healthcare legislation of 2010, which did not explicitly bar federal funding for abortions. One of the Obama-supporting liberals was Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Assn., an association of Catholic hospitals. Keehan’s tireless advocacy on behalf of the law helped persuade antiabortion House Democrats to sign on to the Senate-drafted bill that eventually became law. In a recent statement on behalf of the association, she sounded shocked. “The impact of being told we do not fit the new definition of a religious employer and therefore cannot operate our ministries following our consciences has jolted us,” she wrote.
The fragile liberal-conservative alliance opposing the rule on contraceptive coverage seems unlikely to hold for long, much less to extend to other issues on which Catholics at either end of the spectrum may find common ground. Yet it is refreshing to see that no matter how disaffected from their church’s teachings some Catholics might feel, they believe that its organizations have a right to act in accordance with its principles.
Charlotte Allen is the author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.”