Letters & Op-Eds 2011
Washington Post - Acts of Faith

On family planning, does the Catholic Church represent Catholics?

John Garvey’s op-ed, “HHS’s birth-control rules intrude on Catholic values,” makes some assertions that do not hold up to scrutiny. In fact, millions of Catholics—theologians and laypeople alike—have lauded the inclusion of women’s preventive healthcare coverage as respectful of Catholic values.

The Catholic University of America (CUA) president asserted that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will “require” CUA to offer its students family planning services, claimed that certain reproductive health services are sinful and that the HHS was violating religious liberty.

There is nothing in the HHS rules that requires anybody to provide services. They require employers to offer coverage, which employees (or students) can then decide to utilize or not.

As regards the alleged sinfulness of family planning and the violations of religious liberty, Mr. Garvey’s interpretation is at odds with that of at least a dozen of thenation’s leading theologians who wrote to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the HHS on this very issue.

In the theologians’ letter, they explained a different, but clear and Catholic, objection to the mandate for contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act—saying it didn’t go far enough. To back up their request that the HHS eliminate the refusal clause entirely, they relied on Catholic values and teachings, which they showed to be completely in harmony with the HHS policy on contraceptive coverage.

First, they mentioned the “sensus fidelium —the graced and experience-fed wisdom of the faithful that has always been one of the sources of truth in the Catholic tradition.” Since the overwhelming majority (98 percent) of sexually active Catholic women have used a form of modern contraception, it seems that Catholics in the pews might have something important to say to those in the pulpit. We should remember that it was only recently, in 1968, that a majority of the pope’s hand-picked advisors agreed that there was no moral, theological or pastoral reason to ban Catholics from using contraception. The bishops, however, would like us to forget that moment in Catholic history.

The theologians also emphasized the primacy of conscience—a central tenet of Catholic teachings. They showed that this implies a respect for others’ consciences as well. If the “university does not seek to impose its moral views on others,” as Mr. Garvey stated, then it should be free to condemn contraception in theology classes while students and employees are left to apply those lectures, or not, to their reproductive lives. These are the “norms of academic freedom” that Mr. Garvey lauds.

Conspicuously absent from the CUA president’s argument is the well-being of all women, which the theologians upheld as a Catholic value. Further, they noted that contraception is seen as integral component of women’s healthcare “by most other modern democratic societies.”

The authors of the letter also invoked the Catholic commitment to justice, specifically to workers’ rights. The refusal clause for religious institutions would impose unfair labor practices on employees, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who would be denied benefits other American women enjoy, simply because of where they work.

Being religious in a pluralistic world can bring up hard choices. Luckily the 1966 Vatican II document Declaration on Religious Freedom offers some advice: “In spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion.”

One way of checking ourselves against this standard is to ask, “Does this policy support the common good, a core Catholic value, or just some small part of it?” Allowing religious employers to interfere in women’s capacity for moral decision-making is an affront to conscience and an assault on religious freedom. Legal protections for freedom of religion extend to one’s personal religious beliefs and practices, and to religious communities’ right to worship according to their tenets, but they do not give entire institutions or individuals license to obstruct or coerce the exercise of another’s conscience—whether in religious beliefs, public life or accessing critical healthcare. No person of faith should want to set a precedent that would interfere with an individual’s right to conscience. Catholic University is filled with students and faculty who are living proof that the Catholic tradition still has much to say to the world. Hopefully it is a dialogue and not a monologue.

This article was originally published in the Washington Post’s Guest Voices blog.

Catholics for Choice