Ireland knows too well the travesty of politicians accommodating an anti-contraception policy demanded by Catholic bishops that harms women and families in the name of saving them from sin. Policies that prevent individuals from following their conscience on family planning are totally contrary to the Catholic understanding of human dignity and the common good, but that is exactly the reality the Catholic hierarchy promotes.
After President Obama’s administration announced in January that most employers must offer health insurance plans that include coverage for contraception, the bishops launched a media blitz alleging that the policy violated their religious freedom. They rejected any compromises that did not meet their demands fully. The hierarchy supported legislation -- ironically claiming to support conscience rights -- that would codify the ability of any employer, Catholic or not, to refuse to respect individuals’ moral decision-making on birth control.
Crucially, the hierarchy is ignoring the facts -- 98 percent of sexually active US Catholic women have used contraception, and 63 percent Catholic voters surveyed in 2009 supported health insurance coverage—funded privately or by the government—for contraception. The US bishops’ attempt to legislate away reality is reminiscent of the toll the Vatican’s rejection of birth control has exacted upon the church.
In the 1968 encyclical known as Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI rejected the recommendation of the papal-appointed Birth Control Commission that he overturn the ban on modern contraceptive methods. He decided that if the hierarchy admitted it was wrong on this issue, its authority would be questioned on every other issue as well. So he pushed aside the wisdom of the faithful, ultimately leading to today’s fissure between Catholics and their bishops.
Humanae Vitae had global repercussions around the world. Theologian Anthony Padovano argues that “there is always some damage to morale” when a “don’t ask, don’t tell situation” exists like the hushing of Catholics’ contraceptive use.
The US bishops are layering over a good and functioning reality -- where women make family planning decisions according to their conscience—with the fiction that the government is legislating away religious liberty. The hierarchy’s familiar tactic of unleashing the bogeyman aside, something urgent is at stake here. One of the conditions of a safe, just society is women’s ability to equitably access contraception, if they so choose.
The fact that US legislators of all stripes now suddenly feel the need to mollify ever more demanding bishops strikes a chord for the Irish -- or any people whose battle to separate church and state was patiently won over the long haul. The true dispute today is over each individual’s right to be true to their conscience, rather than being subject to hierarchy-sanctioned policies divorced from true democratic and Catholic principles. When the bishops elevate some fictitious Catholic group-conscience over those of individuals, they are trying to make the American nation do something it can’t do. It is not possible to simultaneously protect freedom of religion -— and freedom from religion -- while one ultraconservative faction of one faith gets to redefine this foundational concept to enforce a ban on contraception that everybody admits Catholics don’t follow.
Obama doesn’t have an “Irish problem” at home or abroad. That, like the so-called “religious liberty” crusade, is more smoke and mirrors designed to divide Americans from each other, directing them away from the true threat posed by the hierarchy. Perhaps it can’t all be fixed by sharing a pint, but a little solidarity will go a long way.
O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice.