The Obama administration announced Friday a new opt-out for faith groups protesting the HHS mandates over coverage of birth control, “one that will allow large faith-based hospitals and universities to issue plans that do not directly provide birth control coverage,” Post reporters Michelle Boorstein and Sarah Kliff noted. Here are four items to keep in mind as this story unfolds:
1. The Catholic Church is likely to take more time to study the issue than it did in its scattered public response to the Obama administration’s proposed compromise in February 2012. After President Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced a policy change shifting the burden from employers to insurers, the bishops conference called the move “a first step in the right direction.” They later issued a stronger statement — in addition to a subsequent religious liberty campaign — raising “serious moral concerns.” CEO of the Catholic Health Association Sister Carol Keehan had initially expressed support for the compromise, but later reversed course, citing “religious liberty concerns.”
On Friday the USCCB issued a brief statement: “We welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely. We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later.”
2. Look for language around “cooperation with evil.” At the core of the Catholic Church’s religious liberty concerns on contraception are fundamental questions over how church institutions collaborate with people or policies it finds immoral. (“The term ‘evil’ isn’t as ominous as it sounds, but rather is shorthand used by moral theologians to describe anything sinful,” writes journalist David Gibson). In this case, the church doesn’t want to fund contraception and rejected the administration’s initial mandate that its institutions (hospitals, universities) provide employees with insurance coverage whereby the insurers themselves cover birth control. “It is unreasonable to expect the church to violate its own teachings by facilitating and funding sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraception,” reads a statement on the USCCB’s Web site. But in a “fallen world,” to use the church’s language, how much cooperation between the church and immorality is okay? It’s a question of intense debate among Catholics themselves — for a primer read Gibson’s explainer on moral theology and Michael Gorman at First Things.
3. The Catholic Church teaches that artificial contraception (any method other than what it calls Natural Family Planning — NFP) is “morally unacceptable.” It teaches that sexual pleasure and openness to reproduction cannot be separated — they are at the heart of marriage (an argument that also shapes its activism against gay marriage). A relatively new church site, Marriage, Unique for a Reason, provides many explanations of church teaching and frames matrimony as “foundational to human existence.” Reads one passage: “Children are at the very heart of marriage. The ‘supreme gift’ of marriage, a child, comes precisely through the mutual, loving self-gift exchanged between husband and wife.” But this contraception-less standard is one that many Catholics wrestle with or reject, which leads us to. . .
4. The vast majority of Catholics who have had sex have used artificial contraception. Last year, many repeated the claim that 98 percent of Catholic women use contraception — a stat that the Post’s Fact Checker noted was not quite correct, as the shorthand version didn’t adequately describe the limits of the group surveyed. What is true? From the Fact Checker:
“Data shows that 98 percent of sexually experienced women of child-bearing age and who identify themselves as Catholic have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning at some point in their lives.”
The church offered a different figure in its survey; finding that “63 percent of all Catholic women of reproductive age are currently using a method of contraception (rather than NFP),” though the report also noted that “it is possible that 99 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used some form of contraception in the past.”