Catholic Bishops Join the Culture War on Obama: Margaret Carlson

Feb. 15 (Bloomberg) -- I was surprised when the bishops didn’t declare victory last week. Heeding their protests, President Barack Obama relieved Catholic institutions of the indignity of having to pay directly for contraception for their employees.

In the compromise worked out by the White House, insurance companies would instead provide contraception coverage separately and absorb the cost, which is less than paying for the alternatives.

Instead of marveling at this miraculous turnaround, the bishops raised holy hell, calling the deal an “outrage” and a “sham.” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, said it was like letting Catholics have pornography as long as someone else paid for it.

To borrow a football metaphor, the bishops moved the pearly gates. They want the president to enforce a religious doctrine against artificial birth control that they gave up enforcing long ago.

I grew up in a devout Catholic family of three children, small for my neighborhood. My father called out numbers at Friday night bingo. My mother delivered starched linens to the sanctuary on Saturday night. But they didn’t take Communion on Sunday morning. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach at every Mass because I was ashamed of them, though I didn’t know what they’d done wrong.

Despite the misplaced shame, I wanted to be married in the church. By 1972, many priests and most Catholic women had given up on church rules on sexual conduct. When I volunteered at my obligatory pre-wedding confession that I used the pill, the priest said that would no longer deprive me of a state of grace. I said five Hail Mary’s, took Communion and later baptized my daughter at St. Ann’s.

Good Faith Effort

Last week, the federal government made a good-faith effort to comply with a religious doctrine that isn’t taken seriously even by many of its most vocal champions. Why do the bishops want to continue this fight? Plenty of Catholics would like to rally around a church still (justly) paying a price for protecting priests who sexually abused children. Despite all, the church continues its commitment to helping the poor and the sick.

But if the controversy evolves from a conflict over religious prerogatives to one about contraception, the bishops will lose cafeteria Catholics who are accustomed to picking and choosing our doctrines.

The bishops are being encouraged by the Republican right, which is forever recruiting reinforcements for its culture wars. Rick Santorum, a Catholic with seven children and a wife who, he boasts, properly stays at home with them, outdoes the bishops. He wants no insurance coverage for contraceptives lest we live in a world where the irreligious “impose their values on somebody else.” (Only Santorum’s values should be imposed on somebody else.)

Newt Gingrich is almost as zealous -- or at least pretends to be. A convert to Catholicism, Gingrich’s multiple marriages make a mockery of at least one church doctrine. His destructive politics and personal vitriol pretty much take care of the rest. Obama, Gingrich said, “will wage war on the Catholic Church the morning after he is re-elected.”

To compete with Santorum and Gingrich, Mitt Romney, the suspect moderate, grows even phonier. Providing “contraceptives, morning-after pills -- in other words, abortive pills -- and the like at no cost,” he said, “is a violation of conscience.” Yet a similar policy didn’t violate his conscience when he was governor of Massachusetts.

War on President

To the extent conservative voters support the bishops, it is largely on abortion, not contraception. Evangelical doctrine doesn’t prohibit birth control. If they pursue their current course, the bishops risk looking like allies of the Republicans’ war on all things Obama: health-care reform, big government, fiscal policy and now contraception.

Balancing the desires of our varied religions without endorsing any one in particular can be messy. Should insurers tailor their policies to conform to Shariah law for Muslim employers? Should reporters at the Christian Science Monitor be deprived of health care in favor of prayer healing? If not, why should Catholic employers be allowed to deprive employees -- who pay insurance premiums -- of coverage for contraceptives?

The president has no obligation to yield to the anachronistic, largely unenforced policy of one religion. Americans didn’t leave the Church of England behind only to embrace a Church of the United States as defined by an overreaching Catholic hierarchy. Thank God for that.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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