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Contraception and controversy

Cross-posted from my blog at Seminary of the Southwest

The debate that has raged through the first weeks of this year over contraception has got me noticing how bad we are, generally speaking, at arguing. I am a great fan, as anyone who has taken my “God and Creation” class knows, of good argument. And if that sounds like an oxymoron to you, you’ve got the full support of my oldest daughter, who once heard me describing a “great argument” we had in class that day. She reminded me of my firm “no arguing” policy governing board games and kitchen cleaning, and proceeded to dress me down for blatant hypocrisy.

But of course, there’s argument and then there’s argument. The sort that includes a sincere effort to tests warrants, evaluate conclusions, and improve the language and perspective on a particular issue is the kind I on occasion celebrate at the family table. (Not that I dominate meals with diatribes on symbolic logic; more often than not our discussions focus on the rather more “material” sort of reasoning that occurs on the playground, or perhaps in Axl Rose’s lyrics.)

The other sort of argument has less to do with testing the fabric of language than with manipulating the rhetoric on an issue in order to makes one’s own convictions all the more impregnable. “It’s not my turn to wash dishes” is the beginning of one such argument, and no carefully reasoned attention to warrants and conclusions is going to effect a perspectival alteration there. Believe me: I’ve tried.

It’s that sort of argument, unfortunately, that seems to be the loudest in the controversy surrounding Catholic health insurance and contraception. On the one side are the Catholic agencies who want to continue distributing resources in a way that is consistent with Catholic ethics. On the other side, those who, like the President, want insured Americans to have equal access to some basic medical needs. On their own, both ideas seem quite reasonable. But then, of course, things get complicated.

Supporters of the Administration’s position point out that it’s one thing to keep Catholic dollars flowing in directions consistent with Catholic moral theology, but another thing to insist that employees of Catholic institutions, many of whom have no other insurance options, and many of whom are not in fact Catholic, also live by this ethic. Further, while Catholic health insurance institutions may include charitable checks and balances, they’re still big business. Very big business, in fact. There is a measure of the disingenuous about an insurer proclaiming an ethical principal that also happens to serve that insurer’s bottom line—and refusing to cover a health care service always serves the insurer’s bottom line.

With that amount of complexity, it’s annoying to hear Catholics and conservatives spin the Administrations’s position as “a war on religious freedom.” For one thing, this fails to account for the subtleties of Catholic theology itself, setting up the fight as if it were simply a question of authority. This leaves Catholics open to the rebuttal that if a faith-ethic overrides a legal ruling, then a slippery slope takes us into some swampy waters indeed: a “religious freedom” argument would work just as well for a pro-slavery or pro-human sacrifice platform. For another thing, the Catholic principle of non-coerced faith—the idea that the Christian faith and ethic cannot be forced on anyone—is older than the stance against contraception, and the current enmeshment of the church with market-driven insurance policies muddies these waters, to say the least. I have great respect for the work of theologian George Weigel, but on this issue he is fanning the flames of controversy while failing to address the key issues in either the Obama position or the Catholic ethic. Some of the loudest Catholic voices, then are arguing badly.

At the same time, I must also observe that the Catholic position on birth control comes out of deeply resourced, theologically articulated ethic which is always prejudiced in favor of life. So the slippery slope argument about human sacrifice, etc., turns out to be a cheaply purchased adventure in missing the point. True, there is good reason to be slow about trusting the ethical rulings of religious institutions in general, and the Catholic Church in particular; but those who think the state is more worthy of our trust haven’t been paying attention for the last … well, ever. For every historical account of a bishop making things worse for the citizenry by overriding the ruling of a prince, there are multiple accounts of a prince making things worse by overriding the will of the bishop.

For all those reasons, it’s annoying to hear supporters of the original Obama position painting the opposition as waging a “war on women.” Granted, in the shock-rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh there is evidence of something like that, but I rather doubt that the Bishops feel comfortable appointing him as their spokesman. On this point, basic rhetoric teaches us that arguments are most persuasive when the opponent’s position is read in its best and strongest light, and that nearly always implies ignoring Rush Limbaugh.

The Catholic position on contraception has to do with the proper role of desire, joy, risk, and love within human sexuality; any quick and easy dismissal is going to avoid all of that and thus fail to truly engage the argument. I am generally a great fan of Jon Stewart—and not just his comedy, but his challenging interviews and investigative journalism as well. But he has no ear for theological subtlety, and on the contraceptive issue he has failed to do any real justice to the Catholic position, rushing instead to point out inconsistencies in the church’s teachings that, though worth considering, are simply off topic. The secularists, then, are arguing just as poorly as the Catholics.

The upshot of this poor argumentation is that the public is offered not so much two opposing points of view, but two claims from different worlds of thought. On the one side, the champions of religious freedom, on the other side, champions of women’s rights. The public then must decide which we value more highly, thus quickly constructing a make-shift hierarchy, so that one kind of freedom can trump the other. Do I care more about the rights of women to gain access to contraceptives, or about the ability of faith traditions to resist the state with both their morality and their dollars?

In the end, it seems to me that Obama got it right, or at least put us on the trail of a good solution, with his revised plan asking Catholic health care providers to create a route to contraceptive services that bypasses Catholic funds. Still, calling his revision a “compromise”—even, as one news service called it, an “Anglican” compromise!—is already to give the game away, as if the solution is to balance one set of rights-vocabulary against another, finding the elusive “middle way.” Thinking of the solution in those terms allows us to move forward without questioning the reliability of the rights/freedom language of either side—without either the Catholics or the secularists listening to the challenges, and working toward the crafting of a better arena for facing issues of this sort. And of course, that means that we can be expecting a return of this particular repressed beast, no doubt nastier and more polemical than ever.

Reimagining the conversation would involve a new mode of engagement, the sort that doesn’t easily turn into sound-bites, talking points, or punch-lines. It would involve a recovery of the sort of debate in which charity meets with rigor, where golden calves are dissected, and no one applauds for sloganeering. It would, in short, involve a recovery of the good kind of arguing. Could this return to the American political arena? Could it return to the church? Could it return to that place where politicians and bishops confront one another over the just use of resources, and just treatment of men, women, and children?

(Many thanks to Allison Baker for discussing these issues with me, and helping me see aspects that I had previously overlooked. Allison is, among other things, a nurse and program coordinator at a Catholic health care facility.)


  1. I’m not sold. The author seems to miss the most significant point that Wiegel et. al. make: since when does the U.S. Government have the authority to define what is and isn’t a religious institution? For reasons that still seem mysterious to me, a non-Catholic secretary at an RC Church has to buy her own contraceptives, but a nurse at a Catholic hospital gets hers free, yet I fail to see how the latter’s immediate employer is somehow less a religious institution than the former’s.

    I could understand how one might have doubts that there is such a thing as a Methodist bowling alley or Salvation Army gambling casino, but the operation of hospitals by the Catholic Church dates back nearly as far as its operation of cathedrals. Venerability and continuity should count for something, one would think, even for so benighted an era as ours.

    Nor do I see how the size of the operation matters in the least. I have little doubt that a review of the the records would find that many more Americans are served by Roman Catholic parishes than her hospitals and that the dollars flowing through the former are not particularly largely outpaced by those directed via the latter. So, what again is the basis for exempting the one “big business” from the contraception mandate but not the other?

    I suppose that the Administration will say that the difference is that one needn’t be religious to operate a hospital or a school, etc. Yes, but the Catholic Church has been doing these things longer than there has been a modern world to feel superior to it and has been doing these things specifically as an expression of her religious mission. Secular people drink wine on ceremonial occasions every bit as heartily as Chrisitans or Jews, yet the Eucharist or a Seder is recognized as a religious activity while the toasts at a wedding reception or celebrity roast are not – and we don’t need this Administration to tell us this. The Administration seems to want to play Humpty Dumpty as regards the word “religious”. I can’t see how taking issue with this – even on strong terms – is “annoying”.

    Much the same could be said of other Catholic institutions. The problem here, once again, is this Administration appointing itself to define what is and isn’t a religious vocation. It would seem to make sense, as noted above, to take note of what religious institutions have been doing for some time that provides for the common weal and acknowledge the obvious – and well understood. If a church wants government recognition for its liquor store or brokerage house, one need only ask them to demonstrate this as a traditional part of their traditional mission and I would think the question answered.

    Another matter not taken into account herein is the rather obvious fact that contraceptives are both cheap and readily available. Here, if nothing else the Administration has to have us wondering about its apparent lack of the cardinal virtue of prudence. In order to save people a piddling amount of money – for what can only highly dubiously be called “medical care” – the Administration has unnecessarily (and rightly) infuriated many who might otherwise have been supportive. There simply wasn’t any need for this. People buy their own toothpaste, feminine hygiene products and deodorant. They can buy their own rubbers.

    I realize the real issue here is how to get people to communicate better and to examine the place of charity in such an undertaking. With this I concur. The Left seems to insist that the right is motivated by three things: bigotry, greed and a desire to control other people’s lives. The right honestly believes that the left is motivated by three things: hatred of God and country, an adolescent sense of entitlement, and a desire to control other people’s lives. Each side can explain the other and even predict what the other is going to do based on these beliefs, but they are dead wrong on all three counts on both sides. They explain everything and understand nothing. And both sides are drifting further and further apart.

    So I concur with the desire to bring a spirit of comity and forbearance to the discussion. I just don’t think that this piece does a very good job of it. The reasoning seems too weighted in favor of the Administration and fails to address the real concerns of the Catholic heirarchy and her spokesmen.


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