Church, flock at odds

As the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals involving children and clergy in the United States, Germany, Latin America, Ireland and the Netherlands unfolded a few years ago, the church found itself in the midst of a crisis much of its own making. It wasn’t just the horror of the crimes; it was the lengths to which the leadership of the Catholic Church conspired to keep them hidden. I, like many Catholics, struggled with a deep sense of dissolution as we watched the leadership put protecting the institution ahead of its mission to keep children safe and ministering to the needs of those who were raped and put in harm’s way. Responding to public outcry, the church reacted as most institutions do, labeling legitimate criticism as attacks and shielding high-level authorities. Many American Catholics were left feeling their church was out of touch.

It’s disturbing to again see the church react as an institution, labeling the Obama administration as “attacking religious freedom” for its decision to require the majority of employer-based health insurance plans to cover women’s preventive services, including contraception, without charging a copay, or a deductible, as recommended by the medical community. In its criticism, the church also ignores the fact that no individual is required to buy a plan that covers contraception costs, houses of worship are exempt and no Catholic doctor is forced to write a prescription. Notably, questions of morality have not been raised about the coverage of prescriptions enhancing a man’s sexual pleasure in the plans currently offered.

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Again out of touch, the church leadership is unable to accept the changed perspective and health concerns of its followers. In addition to the 98 percent of Catholic women who’ve used contraception, studies show that 71 percent of Americans, including 77 percent of Catholic women, support covering it at no cost. From reducing the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers to treating severe migraines, pelvic inflammatory disease, uterine fibroid tumors, abnormal bleeding and anemia and providing family planning, there are any number of reasons a woman and her doctor may decide contraception is in the best interest of her health. The No. 1 reason women aren’t able to chose contraception to protect their health is cost, not religion. And these issues affect not only women but also their families and those who love and rely on them.

Without even acknowledging legitimate women’s health and rights issues, the GOP/right-wing talking points distort the facts, distract from the truth and create further divides, just as they attempted with the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s now-reversed decision to pull funding for breast cancer screenings from Planned Parenthood. Despite his previous positions in support of contraception, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has seized on the issue as a political opportunity to curry favor with Catholic and evangelical voters. 

Certainly the same conservatives who believe that corporations are people with “freedom of speech” would agree the Founding Fathers intended for religious freedom to be a two-way street, protecting the institution and the individual. 

And what of the constitutionally protected freedom of a non-Catholic woman who follows a faith tradition that views the issue differently from her religiously affiliated employer — a hospital or college? Can that institution, which benefits from a special tax status because of its charitable work, legally discriminate against a citizen, imposing itself on her beliefs? A majority of American Catholics would likely prefer the church use its power to support social justice rather than oppose our legal rights to full healthcare protections.

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and a Democratic consultant.