In announcing its final rule concerning the Affordable Care Act’s guarantee of access to birth control without a co-pay for all American women—including the Catholics and non-Catholics who work in religiously sponsored schools, hospitals, and social service agencies—the Obama administration bent over backwards to accommodate the Church’s concerns. The goal was to spare Church fathers from the anguish of getting their pristine hands dirty by, as the Bishops charged, being forced to sell, buy or broker birth control coverage for women, including students. The final rule allows that either the insurance company used by the institution will have to pay for birth control—or, if the institution is self-insured, the plan administrator will have to provide or arrange payment—with reimbursement coming through a series of convoluted steps.
In a repeat of the Church battle over the Affordable Care Act, Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, last week publicly approved the administration’s final rule, issuing an explanation for the association’s members about how to implement it. Not so the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The week before, its head, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, released his statement expressing dissatisfaction with the compromise, saying that the bishops are subjecting it to further “analysis,” feel their “religious freedom” is still under threat, and plan to continue “defending our rights in Congress and in the courts.” Count on the 60+ lawsuits by Catholic diocese and universities around the country, joined by secular employers who also don’t like birth control and want to exclude it from their insurance policies, proceeding apace.
It is maddening that the Administration had to go to such extremes to placate the Church fathers, who dare to put “moral” and “money” as it applies to this deeply compromised institution in the same sentence. How pure, really, were the hands of the Church fathers who began decades ago to secretly spend millions of dollars in hush money to silence child victims of clergy rape and sodomy, and rid themselves of the evidence of their paternal crimes? Hush money that came from the faithful in the pews, who paid for all those ever-escalating insurance premiums, and from selling the churches and schools out from under those same working-class Catholics? The victims merited all the compensation they got and more, but the Church fathers literally stole that money from the Catholics they served and lied about it.
When the Bishops realized how much money they had to lose by even these secret settlements, hiding the goods from the victims became the next best strategy. So how pure, really, are the hands of Cardinal Dolan, the leading voice claiming the moral high ground in the battle to keep any of the church coffers from supporting birth control for women? Files just released by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee turned up a letter showing that when Dolan served as the Archbishop of that diocese, he secretly and successfully, and even as the Archdiocese was preparing to file for bankruptcy, petitioned the Vatican to bury nearly $57 million in a cemetery trust fund in order to protect those assets “from legal claim and liability,” aka, child abuse victim compensation. And this was on top of his paying off some priest child sex abusers $20,000 a piece to leave the priesthood, reportedly defended by Dolan in one case as “an act of charity,” so that, irony of ironies, the priest “could pay for health insurance.”
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And how pure, really, are the hands of the Church fathers regarding money when we look at the shenanigans at the Vatican bank? Still laughably named the “Institute for the Works of Religion,” the Vatican Bank is literally drowning in mounting accusations of money laundering and mobster connections. Most recently, Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, an accountant for the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, which manages the Vatican’s property and investments (and a Vatican account-holder himself), was arrested and charged with conspiring to transfer some $26 million from Switzerland to Italy to dole out to his rich friends.
Given this sad financial state of affairs, how does paying for a health service like birth control for women become such a threat to Church fathers that they’ve made a major campaign out of it?
The bishops claim this mandate violates church teaching that artificial birth control is “intrinsically evil, “despite the fact that nearly 100 percent of Catholics don’t believe there is anything “intrinsically evil” about birth control and use it. The bishops claim birth control is the same as abortion; it isn’t. They claim to be protecting the institution’s “conscience,” thereby stepping all over Catholic Church teaching that defines conscience as “the most secret core and sanctuary” of a person, not an institution, and the Church not as the “men of God” but as “the people of God,” which would seem to include women. They claim the money at issue is “their” money, even though employees earn their health insurance as part of their compensation package, and many have to contribute to or pay the full amount of their health insurance premiums so this is at base a labor issue. And their claim that birth control is not a “health” service, in the face of current scientific knowledge and medical opinion, is tantamount to insisting that the sun revolves around the earth.
A hint of a far deeper motivator lies in a rarely regarded passage from Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1969 Encyclical letter, “On the Regulation of Birth,” which cemented the Church’s current intransigent opposition to birth control. The section on “Grave Consequences on Methods of Artificial Contraception” reads in part:
Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
In other words, a woman should not have access to methods of artificial birth control, should be at the mercy of her husband and her biology, because then her husband is more likely to remain committed to her and to God and faithful to the Church’s “moral law.” Keeping her at constant risk of pregnancy—and the health jeopardy that is attendant on such risk—is a small price to pay for maintaining the Church’s moral order.
That position—blindness to women’s rights and needs—has a familiar ring. It is the same refusal to see that underlies the all-male hierarchy’s ban on women priests. It is the same refusal that forbids priests to marry. Indeed, at the heart of the contraception debate and so many debates around gender in the Catholic Church is a terror that if women have rights—over their own reproductive lives, to be priests, to marry priests, to have real voice and power in the Church—then the Church men will change. And if the Church men change, then the Church will change. And if the Church changes, the future that the all-male hierarchy lives in terror of—Pope Francis’s nightmare of rampaging feminists, waging a “vindictive battle,” steam rolling men with their “chauvinism with skirts”—will, at last, be here.
No wonder they’re fighting so hard.