The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted yesterday to make Archbishop Timothy Dolan their next president, departing from USCCB tradition by passing over their current vice president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson.
The vote is seen as a conservative move, as Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, has a reputation as “a stricter defender of church orthodoxy” and “a genial conservative.” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who was elected to the vice presidential seat, is perhaps more vocally conservative than Dolan; he’s made opposition to same-sex marriage his rallying point. Kicanas, on the other hand, is associated with “social justice Catholics”—not a popular association in the Catholic Church these days. As a result, conservative bloggers campaigned against Kicanas, urging Catholics (or anyone) to contact their bishops in the days leading up to the election. A blogger on RenewAmerica sounded the alarm on “A group of homosexual activists claiming to be Catholic” who supported Kicanas. (RenewAmerica is a site which claims to be nondenominational but which publishes writing by a woman who exposes “the Islamic indoctrination of American textbooks and required prayers to Allah.”)
Indeed, Kicanas’s refusal to condemn Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame earned him the approval of many moderate or liberal Catholics. A St. Louis news affiliate also notes that Kicanas “has not denied Communion to any Catholic politicians.”
What the hell has happened to the Catholic Church that a church leader who doesn’t deny communion is suddenly a pinko? The Church has moved so far to the right that it’s acceptable for the anti-gay Catholic columnist mentioned above to claim that gays are infiltrating the U.S. Catholic church—according to him, “the ‘lavender mafia’ pretty much runs the show in many dioceses.”
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This claim is a) sadly, untrue and b) offensive. The only gays running the Church are the closeted priests who are ousted as soon as they are revealed to be gay. As for gay parishioners, many have understandably defected to the Episcopal church and other inclusive denominations.
The Catholic Church is an institution with a rich intellectual heritage and a history of service to the most marginalized members of society (which may end if American nuns continue to be persecuted by the guys in charge). It should be ashamed to be associated with sites like RenewAmerica and with political movements that preach fear, exclusion, and bigotry. I have no doubt that many members of the Catholic hierarchy are sickened by the Tea Party movement and, more generally, by the increasingly explicit alliance between the Catholic church and the American far right. Unfortunately, these critics risk censure if they speak up, and they certainly don’t get promoted within the Church. So, in the meantime, the Church applauds bishops who refuse Communion to Democrats. This may be a way to shore up political power for now (the Christian right is nothing if not powerful), but it’s an offense to the spirit in which Jesus broke bread with his disciples. What does “Communion” mean, anyway?
In a political landscape that seems destined to pit bibles against birth control for as long as the culture wars shall persist, the Religious Institute is just one of numerous organizations advocating for contraceptive access, abortion rights, and LGBTQ rights motivated by—and not despite—Christian faith.
“When I introduce myself, I tell people I’m a sexologist and a minister. The most likely response is that people laugh,” says Reverend Debra Haffner. “They see those terms as oxymorons, kind of like ‘jumbo shrimp.’”
Haffner, the jumbo shrimp in question, is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. She is also the co-founder and president of the Religious Institute, a multi-faith organization that advocates for sexual health and education—including abortion and contraception access—in religious communities and beyond.
In a political landscape that seems destined to pit bibles against birth control for as long as the culture wars shall persist (see: Hobby Lobby), the Religious Institute is just one of numerous organizations advocating for contraceptive access, abortion rights, and LGBTQ rights motivated by—and not despite—Christian faith.
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Considering where most Americans stand, this makes sense.
According to most major polls, a slim majority of American adults support abortion rights: 51 percent of American adults think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 43 percent think it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Yet some research suggests that Americans’ thinking on abortion is more complicated than this simple binary—and that more people than previously thought support the right to choose. Only a small minority of the public believes abortion should never be legal, and large majorities think that if a woman gets an abortion, the experience should be supportive, comfortable, and non-judgmental.
Americans’ stances on abortion are more complicated than the political rhetoric may lead us to believe. Our understanding of religion and reproductive rights should follow suit.
The majority of Americans are religious. Over 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, while 22.8 percent don’t identify with any particular religion at all. And despite the growth of these so-called “nones,” over 90 percent of Americans still believe in God.
It’s a statistical inevitability: Many, if not a majority of, Christians in this country support reproductive rights. Of Christians, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used some kind of contraception at one point or another. Over three-fourths of Catholics believe that the church should permit birth control, while 53 percent of white Catholics, and 43 percent of Latino Catholics, think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Why do I find this so surprising?
“The American public by and large on some level has bought the myth of the far right,” Haffner says, in answer to my unvoiced skepticism. She’s referring, of course, to the myth that religion and reproductive rights are mortal enemies. “The reality is that the majority of people of faith in this country support all of those things.”
In fact, Haffner says, religious peoples’ advocacy for reproductive rights is almost as old as modern birth control itself. “It might surprise you to know that the very first denominational statement on reproductive health and birth control was in 1929,” she tells me.
It does and here’s why: I’m Catholic. Well, okay—I was raised Catholic. Italian Catholic from New Jersey.
In a red town where “It’s Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve” was still considered a clever punchline, we were Black Sheep Catholics, cultural-heritage Catholics, Kerry- and Obama-supporting Catholics, the Catholics the nuns didn’t like. My mother, a feminist physician who attended Catholic school, was known to get into “disagreements” with church people about contraceptive access, abortion rights, and the war in Iraq.
During mass, I learned to mouth—not say—the prayers for the little aborted fetuses. I learned I would not be permitted marriage in the Church. I learned that I had to choose between my rights as a woman and a queer person, and my belief in God.
So, like youths from time immemorial, I flipped God the bird and pulled my pants down.
Reverend Harry F. Knox says there are a lot of people like me. Knox, president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC)—a coalition of faith organizations that promotes reproductive health and education access—has a slow, gentle voice with a twang.
“It often surprises people when Christians are pro-choice,” Knox tells me. “This normally comes from folks whose particular faith backgrounds have a narrow view of reproductive health and rights.” This narrow view, says Knox, can sometimes make it difficult for people in the secular reproductive rights movement—people like, you know, feminist journalists—to collaborate with people of faith.
In some ways that’s understandable. When right-wing politicians affront our rights under the guise of “religious liberty,” it can be easy to see politics as a rumble between Obamacare-covered progesterone and, well, God. “We have a few partners who sometimes have trouble allowing the faith voice to be heard because of the very real hurt that has been done in the name of religion to women over the years,” Knox says of this tension. “One of the roles that RCRC plays in the larger movement for reproductive health, rights, and justice is a bridge role in helping our allies deal with that pain.”
Knox would know. First denied ordination in two denominations for being gay, Knox, finally ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church, served for years in justice ministry for LGBTQ people. He came to reproductive rights work through what he calls an “abortion crisis” in his own family.
“The Christian church often seeks to control people through shame,” says Knox. Part of his job, then, he says, is to help people “tell their own stories about sexuality, about their own experience as spiritual people who are also sexual beings, fully embodied, and made in the image of God.”
And Haffner and Knox tell me that Protestants aren’t the only pro-choice Christians. There are, my mother will be delighted to know, Catholics in the game, too. “We say that good Catholics do and can use reproductive health-care services,” says Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, domestic program director at Catholics for Choice.
Catholics for Choice educates and advocates for sexual health—including, yep, abortion rights—both in religious organizations and government.
Ratcliffe, and Catholics for Choice’s materials in general, put a lot of emphasis on conscience: The idea that decisions about the morality of abortion, contraception, and other sexual matters must be decided in—as they used to say in mass—“the silence of our hearts.” This line of thinking comes with a real anti-authoritarian streak vis-à-vis the Church authorities. Their very sassy mission statement reveals some of this tension, calling out the “Catholic hierarchy” for “punish[ing] and publically sham[ing]” pro-choice Catholics.
Ratcliffe elaborates: “As Catholics, we actually have a right to dissent from teachings.” She identifies this as a mission of religious liberty. “The idea that someone would tell you what you can and cannot believe, or what you can and cannot access because of what they believe, is anathema to Catholics.”
How did I not know about this group as a little gay kid?
Probably because—to no one’s surprise—both the American and Canadian Conference of Bishops have denounced the organization. (A choice excerpt from the denouncement: “CFFC is, practically speaking, an arm of the abortion lobby.”)
Indeed, the group’s been ruffling papal feathers ever since its beginnings. In the 1970s, a woman leader of the group had herself crowned Pope, and a member priest baptized a child who had been forbidden baptism by the Archbishop of Boston because his mother was pro-choice. In 1984, the group took out a full-page New York Times ad calling for the Church to accept pro-choice Catholics. It was co-signed by, among others, two priests, two brothers, and 27 nuns.
Which brings us to the nuns themselves. Lay people aren’t the only Catholics advocating for reproductive freedom—there’s also the nun contingent.
Here’s how the most prominent among them got their start. In 1969, a group of women religious with the Catholic Church—many of them radicalized by the women’s movement—created the National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN), whose support for abortion and contraception rights and belief in the ordination of women continue to fly in the face of official church teachings.
The organization has been headed for the last few decades by Sister Donna Quinn, herself an activist with a much-storied history. Quinn has been a vocal spokesperson for reproductive rights in (or adjacent to) the Catholic Church for years. A photo of her in an abortion “Clinic Escort” vest is iconic.
NCAN was active most recently in the midst of the Hobby Lobby hullaballoo. The coalition of came out in support of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate and a “Stand with the Nuns” petition garnered signatures from over 12,000 pro-contraceptive rights people of faith.
“The institutional church men forget that we are women who are educated, articulate, seekers of truth and very, very holy,” said Quinn in a 2012 article in Reuters of her and her fellow pro-choice sisters’ work.
While remaining active in contemporary debates, however, many activist nuns like Quinn are aging, and according to some a new generation of nuns is less inclined to ruffle feathers.
At the same time, the overall Church’s influence may also be waning, as more and more millennials leave the church.
Still, with 65 percent of millennials identifying as religiously affiliated, the question of religiosity and support for reproductive rights is far from obsolete. And it’s more complicated than the political debate would have us believe, with more young people than ever—even religious ones—supporting causes that have traditionally been met with religious opprobrium, like marriage equality.
For Haffner, the continued relevance of these questions reflects our collective need for meaning.
When Haffner tells me that the majority of Americans attend worship services (at least a couple times a year) I let out an involuntary “Wow.”
Right, because it’s not your friends, she says.
It’s true. I’m a writer for a feminist blog and my voice over the phone sounds 22 years old, suburb-raised, and Ivy-educated, all of which I am. Two of my four college roommates were presidents of the atheist club. I’ve got “friends are non-church-going” written all over me.
But when I was researching this article—poring over the Religious Institute’s website or the nuns’ social justice writings—I found myself crying. Not hard, not uncontrollably, but I kept getting this lump in my throat.
And then it occurred to me, washed over me like a watercolor, all weepy and treble clef—like, oh, duh—that I am actually, in a lot of ways, a very religious person. And I think that the polarization of faith and reproductive rights that the contemporary political landscape so naturalizes does us all a big disservice.
Don’t get me wrong. I still think we are all fortuitous conglomerations of cells and St. Teresa was having an orgasm. I don’t think that every sperm is sacred or that a guy named Jesus had a sadistic father and a redemptive run-in with the Romans (too soon?).
But I was raised by a family raised on Vatican II, on Sacco and Vanzetti, on the Beatitudes, and every time someone starts talking about the inherent dignity of humankind, and social justice, and mercy, and compassion, I want to weep.
Because I know that my grandmother votes Democrat and is mad about police violence and thinks I should have abortion rights and loves me as a feminist and loves me as a lesbian because she loves God. And God loves the most vulnerable.
Haffner, of course, is onto me.
“An anecdote that is really interesting to me is the number of weddings and memorials and baby christenings I’ve done since I became a minister in the reproductive health field,” Haffner says. “People call me because they still need somebody to marry them, they still need somebody to bury their mother.”
Yeah, you might no longer go to church, she seems to be telling me. You might have forgotten the Nicene Creed when the mass was re-translated from Latin and you might only take the Eucharist at Christmas because you think when you cross yourself and your cleavage jiggles you look like Madame Bovary.
But you know what? You may be back. You may be back because all those things you believe in, all those things about humanity and dignity and choice? Yeah, Haffner seems to be saying. We’re working on that.
With the release of yet another set of interim final regulations on Friday, the Obama administration has ostensibly provided another option for eligible organizations to avail themselves of the birth control accommodation. But in reality, what the administration has done is shot itself in the foot—again.
The Obama administration has consistently bent over backwards in its efforts to appease the religious liberty concerns of employers who complain that the birth control benefit and the existing workaround are violations of their religious faith. And on Friday, with the release of yet another set of interim final regulations, the Obama administration has ostensibly provided another option for eligible organizations to avail themselves of the accommodation. But in reality, what the administration has done is shot itself in the foot—again.
What exactly is the Obama administration’s strategy here? To keep offering more and more accommodations—more and more compromises in the hopes that religious objectors to contraceptive coverage will be mollified?
If history is any indication, that’s not going to happen any time soon.
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As any good negotiator will tell you, when you’re in a negotiation with an obstinate party, it is important to assess the goals of that party and come up with a strategy for making sure that you get what you want. This is called a “concession strategy.” If one party to a negotiation is immovable and the other party is a pushover, the immovable party will inevitably walk away having gotten everything they want while the pushover is left with nothing.
Usually, pushovers are so eager to make a deal that they begin the negotiation without a concession strategy; they will offer a deal, and when it is rejected they will immediately concede their position and offer another deal. When that deal is rejected, pushovers will concede their position again and again until there’s nothing left to concede.
In the battle between the Obama administration and the religious right, the Obama administration is the pushover, and the religious right is the immovable party.
The Department of Health and Human Services has made concession after concession in an effort to ensure all women have access to affordable birth control, while the religious right has remained immovable, demanding acknowledgement of their religious beliefs above the health, well-being, and rights of women.
Friday’s concession—detailed here by my colleague Jessica Mason Pieklo—is no different.
In a traditional negotiation, the concessions being made harm the party making them. In the case of the birth control benefit, however, the concessions that the Obama administration keeps making aren’t really harming the Obama administration itself—they are harming the women that the policy is intended to benefit.
For two years, the administration has attempted to work in its own version of good faith with religious objectors—primarily the religious right and the Catholic bishops—who claim that requiring employers to provide birth control to their employees violates the religious faith of those employers. And for two years, these religious objectors have remained unsatisfied with each and every concession offered to them, even when those concessions were originally suggested by the religious objectors themselves.
After an outcry by the religious right and the Catholic lobby when the birth control benefit was first announced back in February 2012, the administration’s willingness to work with these religious objectors and to take their religious feelings into account seemed like a good idea, at least politically.
The 2012 presidential election was less than a year away, and Republicans were busy trying to fire up their base by accusing President Obama of waging a war on religion.
In early December 2011, Republican presidential nominee Rick Perry released a truly ridiculous television ad, in which he bemoaned the fact that gays can serve openly in the military but kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school, and pledged to end Obama’s “war on religion.”
Later that month, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops took out full-page ads in the Washington Post and New York Times in which 151 Catholic leaders of all stripes responded to the HHS “Preventive Services” Mandate—scare quotes and all—and demanded that the Obama administration protect conscience rights.
The Obama administration was being slammed by claims from Catholics and evangelical Christians alike that its contraception policy demonstrated that the administration was hostile to religion. And at the time, with headlines like “Catholic Church vs. Obama in Election Year Showdown” saturating the news cycle, doing something—anything—to appear respectful of religious freedom while at the same time making certain its policy of ensuring that women would have access to preventive services, including contraception, without co-pay seemed like the best course of action for the administration.
And so the administration blinked. It crafted an accommodation for religious objectors and set itself up for a series of legal disasters that would follow.
Under the accommodation, certain religious groups who oppose providing contraceptive coverage can simply hand that job over to their insurance companies after declaring their religious opposition by filling out a form—Form 700.
This accommodation seemed sensible enough. Unfortunately, it initially satisfied some religious groups but not others.
The Catholic Health Association (CHA), which represents over 600 hospitals and 1,400 other health facilities, and is the largest group of nonprofit health-care providers in the United States was appeased. “The Catholic Health Association is very pleased with the White House announcement that a resolution has been reached that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions,” said the group’s president and CEO, Carol Keenan, when the accommodation was first announced in February 2012.
Four months later, however, the CHA did an about-face: It sent a five-page letter to the Department of Health and Human Services opposing the compromise.
The Catholic bishops, on the other hand, remained stalwartly opposed to the compromise throughout the Obama administration’s attempt to negotiate a compromise that would appease all involved parties, claiming that compliance with the accommodation would be “material cooperation with evil.”
According to the bishops, it doesn’t matter whether you’re taking birth control, providing birth control to women, or facilitating some process by which birth control is provided to women; all of these violate the Catholic faith, no matter how distant or uninvolved the Bishops are from “the act.” Never mind that, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 98 percent of Catholic women ages 15 to 44 who have had sex have used a contraceptive method other than natural planning, 68 percent of Catholic women and 74 percent of Evangelical women use “highly effective” methods of birth control—sterilization, hormonal birth control, or intrauterine device (IUD)—and 69 percent of women of all religious faiths use such highly effective methods.
Ultimately, the religious right’s staunch opposition to contraception does not reflect the reality of its use among women, some of whom work for the very organizations that are seeking to deny them the birth control benefit.
To date, 65 cases challenging the accommodation have been filed by non-Catholic and Catholic religious organizations, many of which receive federal funds and/or tax breaks to be in the business of denying benefits for the people who work for them. They argue that the accommodation essentially works as a “permission slip” for contraception, and does not adequately separate the religious organization from the flow of contraception between their insurers and their employees.
The most notorious of the lawsuits challenging the accommodation was filed by the evangelical Wheaton College, which, like the University of Notre Dame, offered contraception coverage in its health insurance plans before deciding that to continue to do so in compliance with the birth control benefit would violate its religious liberty. A mere four days after the Supreme Court ruled against the government in Hobby Lobby—citing the accommodation as the reason—the Supreme Court signaled in its Wheaton College order that the accommodation itself might also be a violation of religious liberty.
In blocking the government from applying the accommodation to Wheaton College, the Court said Wheaton College did not have to fill out the self-certification form, Form 700. Wheaton College could simply inform the Department of Health and Human Services of its religious objections in writing.
Some commentators took the Court’s ruling in Wheaton College to be an invitation to further tweak the accommodation to the birth control benefit. And given today’s release of further tweaks to the birth control benefit and accommodation, the government did too.
I fail to see why.
Even though the Court blocked application of the accommodation to Wheaton College, it expressly stated that its ruling was not on the merits: “[T]his order should not be construed as an expression of the Court’s views on the merits.”
In other words, after full consideration, the Court very well could have found that Wheaton College’s objections to filling out the self-certification form have no merit and might have allowed the government’s accommodation to stand.
But the Obama administration—pushover that it is—didn’t bother waiting for the Supreme Court to issue a final ruling in the Wheaton College case. (That will likely happen during the Supreme Court’s next term.)
Instead, taking its cue from the Supreme Court’s Wheaton College order, the administration released new regulations allowing eligible organizations to inform the Department of Health and Human Services in writing of their religious objection to contraceptive coverage so that, as before, a third party can step in and provide that coverage in the religious objector’s stead. In its rush to appease these religious objectors, did the Obama administration stop to think that perhaps these religious objectors cannot be appeased because they are immovable? Has the administration learned nothing from its previous negotiations with the religious right?
The Obama administration’s willingness to accommodate religious objectors has done enough damage.
First and foremost, offering more and more concessions simply sanctions employers’ efforts to deny employees their right to earned health benefits, all in the name of “religious liberty.”
In addition, these concessions have led to disastrous results in court: The accommodation provided the U.S. Supreme Court the ammunition it needed to rule in favor of closely held for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, which had complained that they were “persons” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and that the birth control benefit forced them to violate their faith. According to the Supreme Court, the very existence of the accommodation allowing for religious exemptions from the birth control benefit necessarily meant that the birth control benefit itself was not the “least restrictive means” of ensuring that women would have access to contraception without co-pay. And that was the key reason for the administration’s profound defeat in Hobby Lobby.
By further tweaking the accommodation, the administration has all but admitted that the current iteration of the accommodation will fail the “least restrictive means” test once the Wheaton College case winds its way back up to the Supreme Court, just as the birth control benefit failed that test in the Hobby Lobby case.
So why is the administration forcing the error? Does the Obama administration have a concession strategy, or is it simply going to keep bending to the religious right’s will and, in so doing, undermining women’s reproductive rights?
The Obama administration should have allowed the courts time to sort out the current contraception conundrum because if history is any indication, there’s no concession that the Obama administration can offer the immovable religious right that will make them happy.
So rather than try, the Obama administration should have just let the legal chips fall where they may.
Instead, the Obama administration has opened itself up to a host of new lawsuits that jeopardize its ability to maintain its commitment to providing a full range of reproductive health-care benefits—including contraception—to the women who have earned them.