Thursday, February 02, 2012

Individuals or Churches: Who Gets Ultimate Say?

Though it is an unexpected and significant victory for reproductive rights, a recent Obama Administration decision is being critiqued for its lasting reverberations in an election year. The decision speaks directly to a controversy unlikely to subside. Should individual choice speak louder than the canon of an ancient, but still highly influential institution? We as Americans are once again debating the definition of individual liberty and freedom, particularly where it intersects with religion.
President Barack Obama and his senior aides were more than a little concerned before he announced his controversial decision requiring Catholic hospitals and universities to provide contraception in employee health plans.
The Obama Administration has, by this political calculation, espoused the notion that birth control should be accessible to all. That the issue has yet again become a religious one should surprise no one. The above Politico article correctly points out that the Catholic Church’s official position on the subject has never wavered. According to strict definition, contraception is contrary with God’s will. Even so, an overwhelming number of observant Catholics, enough even for a super-majority, have long ignored that commandment.

Polarization of this nature would lead to significant factionalism in many Protestant churches. The very word Catholic means “universal”, which explains its disinclination to fracture along similar lines. But in all fairness, Catholicism has experienced substantial fissures, cracks, and separations for a very long time. What one observes in the Church, one can also see in other areas.

Over time, a war of words over access to birth control and access to abortion has become a frustrating conflict of attrition. Each side believes it is under imminent threat of elimination, so responses are usually aggressively phrased. Whether Roe v. Wade could be soon dismantled or birth control banned outright has never been conclusively established, though the fear remains. There are many interlocking factors in place. The problem and its resolution are many times larger than each cog in the machine.

Anti-choice forces are certainly loud enough and devoted enough, but they are gratefully not alone in the halls of power. Though pro-life proponents contribute their money to favored causes and elect their legislative champions, most Americans still strongly support reproductive rights. They believe that a woman's personal decision is of paramount importance.

However, the problem is not nearly so simplistic as a majority opinion. States retain power to govern their own affairs, to a degree, therefore rendering the issue also a regional one. Some of these have undermined existing statutes. Laws requiring parental consent for the procedure, for those under a certain age, have been passed by several, usually conservative states. Periodically, a pro-life hardliner in a state legislature will advance a bill equating abortion with murder, or something similarly harsh and provocative. This only throws more fuel into the bonfire.
The vast majority of Americans back the use of contraception, and about three-quarters of Catholic women in recent polls part with the Church on its prohibition of condoms and the pill. But the political danger isn’t about pills or piety, it’s that the decision — made by the president himself after months of internal discussion — will be interpreted as a dangerous nanny-state intrusion into the religious freedom of Catholics.
Government intrusion into religious expression, or perceived government intrusion into religious expression is a debate as old as the Union itself. It is a debate already ideologically polarized with no history of equality in enforcement. For example, conservative churches and houses of worship are often held to different standards. While officially maintaining non-profit status, conservative political expression during worship can be fiercely and unashamedly partisan. In an election year, right-leaning preachers will regularly use their pulpit as a way to disseminate political thought.

This would seem to violate the stipulations that insist religious organizations must not take a political stance. Liberal faith groups and houses of worship are often judged by a stricter standard, should they stake claim to similar territory. It may be difficult to fully separate the secular from the spiritual in this issue. That being said, individual liberty, as defined, is an important distinction to make. Religious identification has always been a blend between personal faith and corporate identity.

Catholic universities and hospitals who refuse to provide contraceptive services are only speaking for the moral convictions of some, not all. This isn't just true for people of other faiths or no faith at all, but fellow Catholics. While this is a moral issue to some, it is a question of basic freedom to many others. The Catholic Church and the Pope have consistently refused to confront this, a very significant issue. Having noted this, it begs the question: why have many of its adherents only been selectively following the party line, as defined?

I doubt seriously that these proud, observant, faithful believers are behavior problems or living in a suspended state of sin. Until Catholicism is really willing to confront its larger, systemic issues first, birth control and abortion is the least of its worries. Should it refuse to do so, its institutions of higher learning and healing have a very weak case to present.

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