Protecting the Common Good: The Church in the Public Arena

By Frances Kissling
Spring 2001

In March, newly installed New York Archbishop Cardinal Egan went to Albany to make his views known on the issue of requiring religious employers to provide contraception coverage. He will probably go again. This issue and others related to the role of religion in legislation is not going to go away.

The cardinal represents the positions and thinking of the institutional leadership of the Roman Catholic church. He is in charge of a diocese that has many schools, hospitals and social service agencies, and he can provide legislators with insight into the needs of many marginalized and poor people in New York.

What he cannot do, however, is represent the views of either the nation’s or New York’s Catholic people on issues related to the separation of church and state or sexual and reproductive health and rights. I hope that when the cardinal talks to legislators, he makes it clear that the Catholic people do not agree with the church’s position on the very public policy matter that most urgently brings him to Albany–contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans. The reality is that Catholics use contraception and support insurance coverage for contraceptives. Some 96% of all Catholic women who have ever had sex have used modern contraceptive methods. Like the general population, three-quarters of Catholics support legislation that would require health insurers to cover contraceptives in their prescription drug plans. Catholics also believe that health care institutions that accept government funding have an obligation to provide reproductive health services–82% of Catholic women believe that any Catholic hospital that receives government funds should be required to allow doctors working there to provide any legal, medically sound service the doctors believe is needed.

Of course, the cardinal has a right to express his views and those of the institutional church. As a lobbyist, he even has the right to stretch a point or two in an effort to convince legislators to adopt his opinion. Of course, legislators should welcome the cardinal and give him a fair hearing–as they would any significant organizational leader in New York from Planned Parenthood to the Sierra Club, from the head of the Episcopal Diocese to the chair of the Interfaith Council. As a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver noted correctly, “The speaker looks forward to discussing legislative and governmental issues with him.” Bravo to the speaker.

The big question is how elected or appointed public officials evaluate and act on the information and positions presented to them by the cardinal–or any religious leader. The obligation to protect the common good, to legislate in a way that protects the religious freedom of all people in the state, and not to legislate on the basis of the religious views of one group, is paramount. Legislators have an obligation to evaluate the public policy positions put forward by the church in the same way that they would evaluate public policy positions put forward by other organizations such as child welfare agencies or environmental groups. In evaluating public policy positions, no matter what group may suggest them, legislators can use the following four criteria:

  • Who does this group claim to represent, and does that constituency agree with the group’s position?
  • Does this group present accurate and valid facts?
  • Do the policy suggestions of this group respect the rights of all within society and serve the common good? Are the policy suggestions respectful of other religions, of pluralism, and of tolerance?
  • Will the policy position work?

Legislators should not accept the charge that engaging in such a rational, value-oriented evaluation of a Catholic leader’s position is anti-Catholicism. The anti-Catholic card is all too frequently played. As noted Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether notes, this label is frequently used against those who disagree with the Catholic hierarchy–both Catholics and non-Catholics alike–to stifle progressive discourse about what it means to be Catholic. Critical thought, as reflected in the questions outlined above, is the opposite of bigotry, says Ruether, and “the heart of educated, civil society.”

Frances Kissling is the president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

Catholics for Choice