Commentary Contraception

Why I Skipped Mass Today: A Practicing Catholic Objects to the Bishops’ Arguments Over Birth Control

Anonymous

A practicing Catholic explains why he skipped a mass that would likely include a bishop’s letter about contraception and a defense of the Catholic Church's political battle over free birth control, and what his family did instead. 

Reproductive health politics are controversial enough, but they are even more so for a family of practicing Catholics. My spouse begged me not to put my name on this, concerned about our son, who is scheduled to receive First Holy Communion in a few months. Certainly, neither of us want him to be hassled, or to have his standing jeopardized because of his parents’ dissent toward an increasingly politicized Church. So please excuse the anonymity of this editorial.

There is a really cool website called Bible Gateway that serves as a Google-style search engine for the Christian Bible. Any visitor can search for key words in 46 languages, and the English options includes 31 different versions representing a wide variety of religious traditions, from the 21st Century King James Version to Young’s Literal Translation. What kind of words can you look up? Anything, really. As a Catholic, my Bible Gateway is set to the New American Standard Bible, the same that is listed on the Vatican’s website. It’s interesting to note that, excluding articles, conjunctions, prepositions and other small words, the most common word in the Bible is Lord (6,726 times) and God is second (4,188 times). I have to admit that I was surprised that Jesus comes up only 990 times, but I am sure it’s a contextual thing.

The word love will get you 484 hits, and the results will direct you to excerpts from Genesis to Revelation. Some are passages you might expect to find, such as Jesus’ repeated instruction to “LOVE your neighbor as yourself” and there are some surprises, such as the rather chilling, “Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who LOVES and practices lying.” (Revelations 22:15). Yikes!

The Bible also talks about the poor quite a bit (148 times). And blessed comes up 290 times. You can find both words together in four separate passages, in the Books of Ruth, Proverbs, Matthew, and Luke. Forgive comes up a lot, too, 114 times. And compassion is mentioned 105 times. If you are looking to draw connections to today’s political issues, you can find 231 mentions of war to inform foreign policy, the rich are mentioned 89 times (and not always in a flattering light, echoing the concerns of the Occupy Wall Street crowd), and environmentalists can find 52 references to gardens! Those embroiled in health care politics can find sick 61 times, often connected to Jesus’ ministry to the health of those in most need.

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But you know what word you can’t find in the Bible? Contraception. There is no birth control either. Oh, there are plenty of mentions of birth (118 times), not to mention 15 begots. But there is definitely no contraception.

Nevertheless, reproductive health politics continue to be the centerpiece issue for the Catholic Church in America. And every four years, the Church trades in its megaphone for a set of Spinal Tap amplifiers cranked up to 11, just in time for the presidential election.The last two elections, U.S. bishops admonished Catholic Democratic contenders for their pro-choice positions, refusing Holy Communion to Joe Biden and John Kerry.

But interestingly, no bishop has expressed any public concerns about Holy Communion eligibility for thrice-married Republican candidate Newt Gingrich, nor for Rick Santorum, who has equated people of the same gender who love each other with people who have sex with animals. Santorum’s frequent baiting of Iran into a potential nuclear war is apparently Communion-eligible, too, despite Jesus’ every lesson on how to relate to one’s enemy.

The Catholic Church in America is tolerant of adulterers and warmongers, so long as they are Republican and anti-choice. And so when the issue of contraceptive coverage as part of the Health Care Reform Act came up last week, the Church definitely had something to say. To be fair, the Church has been consistently opposed to contraception for years, though there are notable exceptions. I remember having a conversation with a nun who was administering an HIV- prevention program at a Catholic hospital.  Her program distributed condoms, and I asked her how that was possible. Her reply? “We distribute condoms to prevent HIV. If they happen to prevent anything else, that’s not my responsibility.”

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops vehemently objected to the provision that required American employers to cover contraceptive services as part of their health care plans. The “conscience exemption” for houses of worship that object to contraception was not enough for the bishops. They also wanted Catholic charities, hospitals, and universities, exempted, too. The White House listened and offered a compromise: these Catholic employers would not be required to pay for contraceptive coverage. Nor would they be required to provide contraceptive referrals for their employees. The costs and responsibilities of arranging contraceptives would fall exclusively on the insurers.

It was a reasonable accommodation, but it wasn’t enough for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They responded to this olive branch by demanding exemptions for secular employers as well! I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, since my Church often demands that American law follow its teachings, even for non-Catholics. (By the way, olives are mentioned in the Bible 41 times.) 

Knowing that a bishop’s letter about contraception was likely going to accompany mass today, my family and I decided to abstain. What would we do instead? Perhaps we could spend the day reading the Beatitudes, which illustrate and exemplify the core tenets of our faith, and celebrate the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, and the peacemakers. Or, we could reflect on lessons about morality from the Obama Administration’s determination to provide access to health care for everyone in need. Or, we could spend the rest of the day looking up biblical words relevant to those in need of health care coverage, such a needy (51 times), healed (69 times), and death (469 times).

Any of these options would provide lessons more valuable than the one being taught by a Catholic institution bent on winning the next election.

News Health Systems

Anti-Choice Group Files Lawsuit Over Newly Signed Law That Protects Illinois Patients

Michelle D. Anderson

The policy, which is an amendment to the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act, requires physicians and medical facilities to to provide patients upon request with information about their medical circumstances and treatment options consistent with "current standards of medical care," in cases where the doctor or institution won’t offer services on religious grounds.

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify the scope of SB 1564 and which groups are opposing it.

A conservative Christian legal group has followed through on its threat to use litigation to fight against a new state policy that protects patients at religiously-sponsored hospitals in Illinois.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on Friday filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of the 17th Judicial Circuit in Winnebago County against Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Bryan A. Schneider, the secretary of the Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation.

Rauner, a Republican, signed the contested policy, SB 1564, into law on July 29.

The ADF, which warned Rauner about signing the bill in a publicized letter and statement in May, filed the complaint on behalf of several fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers. These included the Pregnancy Care Center of Rockford and Aid for Women, Inc. Anti-choice physician Dr. Anthony Caruso of A Bella Baby OBGYN—also known as Best Care for Women—was also named as a plaintiff.

“Alliance Defending Freedom is ready and willing to represent Illinois pro-life pregnancy centers if SB 1564 becomes law,” the group said in May. The ADF wrote on behalf of several anti-choice groups, claiming SB 1564 violated the Illinois state law and constitution and risked putting federal funding, such as Medicaid reimbursements, in jeopardy.

In February 2015, state Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Skokie) introduced the policy, which is an amendment to the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act.

The revised law requires physicians and medical facilities to provide patients upon request with information about their medical circumstances and treatment options consistent with “current standards of medical care,” in cases where the doctor or institution won’t offer services on religious grounds.

The new policy also gives doctors and medical institutions the option to provide a referral or transfer the patient.

Unlike an earlier version of the legislation, the version passed by Rauner does not require hospitals to confirm that providers they share with patients actually perform procedures the institutions will not perform; they must only have a “reasonable belief” that they do, Rewire previously reported.

As previously noted by Rewire:

Catholic facilities often follow U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops religious directives that generally bar treatments such as sterilization, in vitro fertilization, and abortion care. The federal Church Amendment and some state laws protect these faith-based objections.

The plaintiffs, which are also being represented by Mauck & Baker LLC attorney Noel Sterett, argued in a statement that the Illinois Constitution protects “liberty of conscience,” and quoted a passage from state law that says “no person shall be denied any civil or political right, privilege or capacity, on account of his religious opinions.”

Illinois Right to Life and the Thomas More Society joined the ADF in protesting the bill. The Catholic Conference of Illinois (CCI) and the Illinois Catholic Health Association (ICHA) initially protested the bill after it was introduced early last year. However, the two groups later negotiated with the ACLU to pass a different version of the bill that was introduced.

In support of the bill around the time of its introduction in early 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois pushed its Put Patients First initiative to help stop the use of religion to deny health care to patients. The advocacy group noted that patients who are miscarrying or facing ectopic pregnancies, same-sex couples, and transgender people and persons seeking contraception such as vasectomies and tubal ligations are particularly vulnerable to these harmful practices.

A new study, “Referrals for Services Prohibited in Catholic Health Care Facilities,” set to be published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health in September, suggested that Catholic hospitals often “dump” abortion patients and deny them critical referrals as result of following religious directives outlined by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Recent figures from an ACLU and MergerWatch advocacy group collaboration suggest Catholic hospitals make up one in six hospital beds nationwide.

Culture & Conversation Race

‘I Burn, and I Hope’: Today’s Writers Revisit ‘The Fire Next Time’

Shonte Daniels

It’s 2016, but the world James Baldwin described in the early 1960s seems no different from the world we live in now.

The first essay in James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time is a letter to his young nephew regarding the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the racial discrimination Baldwin’s nephew will face. Baldwin details the hate his nephew will encounter, and the people who will only see him, a young Black boy, as an animal. But Baldwin’s warning is not used as a fear tactic; rather, Baldwin pleads for his nephew, and for Black youth as a whole, to live with compassion, to survive “for the sake of your children and your children’s children.”

He ends the book by demanding everyone—everyone meaning Black and white people who are conscious of U.S. race relations—change the minds of hateful people. “If we do not dare everything,” he writes, “the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by the slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, / No more water, the fire next time!”

Now Jesmyn Wardan English professor at Tulane University and a recipient of the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction with her second novel, Salvage the Bones—has compiled a collection of 15 essays and three poems (ten of which were written specifically for the book) that arrives 53 years later, at the time of the fire Baldwin forewarned. Not every person has pushed to bring an end to racial injustice, and so everyone is burning. But so long as there are activists, philosophers, and artists, there is always hope we will one day pull ourselves out of the flames: That is the message I took away from Ward’s The Fire This Time. The collection acknowledges the pain and brings the reader a sense of hope that the fire this time is not permanent.

Featuring great contemporary Black writers like Kiese Laymon, Claudia Rankine, and Kevin Young, The Fire This Time uses Baldwin’s thoughts on race to discuss current struggles and Black people’s dogged determination to love each other amid centuries of hate.

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Released today on what would have been Baldwin’s 92nd birthday, the book is grounded in the country’s history to help readers better understand the context of our present moment. As Ward states in her introduction, “We must acknowledge the plantation, must unfold white sheets, must recall the black diaspora to understand what is happening now.”

Slavery may have been abolished more than 150 years ago, but, as the book suggests, the world has not overcome its racist roots, nor has it granted Black people any new means of safety.

When I initially sat down to write this review, the Freddie Gray case had just concluded with zero convictions against the Baltimore, Maryland, officers involved in the death of the 25-year-old Black man. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke had addressed the acquittal to a resounding applause at the Republican National Convention. Meanwhile, Black parents still live in fear for their children playing in the park, street, or pool. Despite claims of a “post-race” society—one in which people are not discriminated against or murdered because of the color of their skin—the targeting by law enforcement of some racial groups over others remains rampant. It feels as if, especially for those with power, the Black body is still another beast to be tamed. It’s 2016, but the world Baldwin described in the early 1960s seems no different from the world we live in now.

This connection between the past and present is the central focus of Claudia Rankine’s essay “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” when she talks about how shortly after she was born four Black girls were killed at an Alabama Baptist church on September 15, 1963, and how 52 years later, “for African-American families, this living in a state of mourning and fear remains commonplace.” Shortly before her essay originally appeared in the New York Times, on June 17, 2015, nine parishioners were shot and killed at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. “Dylann Storm Roof [the shooting suspect] did not create himself from nothing,” she writes. “Every racist statement he has made he could have heard all his life. He, along with the rest of us, has been living with slain black bodies.”

This association is also made in Clint Smith’s poem, “Queries of Unrest,” in which the author writes, “Maybe I come from a place where people / are always afraid of dying.”

Despite the dark nature of the topics addressed in the book, a thread of hope is weaved throughout the entire collection. As Ward writes in her introduction,“I burn, and I hope.”

The Fire This Time isn’t interested in creating plans on moving forward as much as it is about discussing the humanity of Black people.

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers questions historians’ portrayal of Phillis Wheatley and her husband John Peters, asserting that their relationship could have been loving rather than tumultuous; Kiese Laymon thanks OutKast and his grandmama for letting him find his “funky” voice; and Emily Raboteau writes on the importance of murals in urban communities that she photographed around New York, which teach civilians about their rights when engaging with the police.

Amid loss and fury, love binds Black communities together. Our love for each other is what keeps the fire burning as we are shouting for our lives to matter.

However, The Fire This Time is not just a book for those inside the diaspora; Ward urges those who don’t identify as Black or consider themselves part of the diaspora, and those who lack understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement, to read this book and educate themselves on the ways in which Black people are unequivocally human. The collection could change the minds of those who see the Black community, and especially the Black Lives Matter movement, as menacing. It’s an educational and emotional read that shows Black people are hurting and loving simultaneously. Kiese Laymon says it best in his essay “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel)” when he writes, “I’m going to tell Grandmama that her belief is the only reason I’m still alive, that belief in black Southern love is why we work.”

The Fire This Time develops a kinship with non-Black folks through the use of the collective “we.” For example, Isabel Wilkerson speaks to Black people about the continuation of trauma against us and in “Where Do We Go From Here?” (which originally appeared in Essence magazine’s special Black Lives Matter issue). Or Carol Anderson’s “White Rage,” where she takes a historic look at white supremacy in the wake of Black death: “When we look back on what happened in Ferguson, Missouri … it will be easy to think of it as yet one more episode of black rage ignited by yet another police killing of an unarmed African American male.” Instead, Anderson argues that what we’ve seen is an example of white rage, a backlash from white people who have “access to the courts, police, legislatures, and governors,” and can hurt Black communities through means of law and order.

The diversity of perspectives in The Fire This Time is necessary, as the collection seeks to show its readers that Black life, like Black art, can never be extinguished.

In fact, The Fire This Time places a strong emphasis on the difference between life and Black life to ensure the reader understands it, and never forgets the way race alters everyone’s living. The difference between life and Black life is that the latter is always questioned, threatened, or destroyed, due to racism. Whether attending a funeral, walking at night, or even listening to music, a Black body gives ordinary life new context.

The authors of the pieces that fill The Fire This Time have come together, under Ward’s direction, like a family sharing their fears, their rage, and their happiness. Reading through the collection felt like sitting through a discussion with aunties and grandparents. The reader must hear her elder’s stories, which are honest and analytical, comical and devastating.

As Edwidge Danticat writes in the final essay of the book, “Message to My Daughters,” Black people want a future where our children “have the power to at least try to change things, even in a world that resists change with more strength than they have.”

The Fire This Time will not leave you feeling completely hopeful of the future—it is not naïve in its optimism—but it does suggest that there is always room for societal change, so long as we continue fighting for it. Like The Fire Next Time, this book still hopes for when the fire will bring peace. “When that day of jubilee finally arrives,” Danticat writes, “all of us will be there with you, walking, heads held high, crowns a-glitter, because we do have a right to be here.”

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