Radio talk shows, especially some locally based ones here in the Pittsburgh area, have spent a lot of time on the issue of the recent mandates requiring Catholic institutions to provide coverage for birth control methods. This is an area with a high population of Catholics, and the head of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Bishop Zubik, has used some of the most dramatic language in his letter expressing opposition to the mandate, essentially saying that the Obama administration is telling Catholics to “go to hell”.
Recent movement by the administration toward negotiating some of the conditions of the mandate with Catholics have helped to tone down some of the political rhetoric. And what has surprised me as much as anything is that this issue has probably garnered more support among conservative Evangelical Christians than it has among Catholics. Most of those who have called in to local talk shows who have self-identified as Catholics don’t think this is all that big a deal, and a rather large number of them, almost all of them in fact, have expressed some level of disagreement with the church’s position on birth control. It isn’t an issue that seems to have come to the forefront in recent years. And, at least from a local perspective, it doesn’t seem like it is going to provide a whole new segment of voters for Republican presidential candidates. I had no idea that most Catholics ignore their church’s teaching on birth control and the use of contraceptives.
It is a little bit ironic that conservative Republicans, especially those of the Evangelical Protestant variety, are using this particular issue as a rally point to keep their voters engaged and interested. Not only is there almost universal acceptance of the use of contraceptives among conservative Christians, but they themselves are often sharply critical of the Catholic teaching on the issue. Trust me, in a lifetime of sitting and listening to sermons in Southern Baptist churches, I’ve heard criticism of the Catholic teaching on birth control work its way into many sermons. Now, however, it seems that the thinking is that an attack on Catholic religious liberty is an attack on everyone’s religious liberty. Or so goes the logic, anyway.
The fact that most Catholics don’t see this as an intrusion into their religious freedom certainly weakens any ability to use this as a political issue. The fact that the administration is willing to negotiate the mandate is another. But beyond that, there are a couple of other issues which take the “punch” out of the potential for this to be much of anything except a rally point for conservatives, or something to fill a talk show hosts time.
First of all, the same Catholic bishops, or at least many of the same ones, who have signed on to opposition to this particular mandate are also part of the group of Catholic bishops who have continually expressed support for universal health coverage, and who have hailed “Obamacare” as a big step on the way to accomplishing it. They’ve come out in opposition to efforts and rhetoric about appealing health care reform. So it does not appear that this issue will help the GOP pick up any significant support from places that haven’t provided it before.
Then, too, there is the fact that the church itself, and those who work directly under its supervision, are all exempt from this mandate on religious grounds. There’s at least one Supreme Court ruling that clearly supports this. So it is only church-related institutions, and particularly those not directly controlled by the church itself, that are affected. Essentially, the only method of enforcement that the government has is funding, which means that if the church had kept direct control over the institutions, instead of altering that position in order to get some government funding, we wouldn’t have a problem here. In that regard, they could learn something from their Evangelical conservative brethren, who, for the most part, avoid any kind of government control by remaining free of government money. That’s another reason why this mandate isn’t a problem for them.
I expect that the ongoing negotiations will work something out that will allow Catholic related institutions to avoid having to abide by this mandate when it comes to contraceptive coverage and birth control. I also expect that the timing for that will work out to the benefit of the current administration.