By Frank Wessling
How often does a moral teaching identified almost exclusively with the Catholic Church come to dominate political discussion? The uproar over contraception in recent weeks may be unprecedented in that respect.
Unfortunately, “uproar” is the proper word to describe what has happened: sound and fury clarifying and explaining almost nothing. The American public only knows that the Catholic bishops seem to be making a risky bet: the great complex of Catholic charitable work for the public, including hospitals that serve hundreds of thousands, against the chance that contraception coverage in health insurance will be made fully elective, not mandatory.
This might be a fight worth the risk, but the bishops have few allies on the principle that contraception itself is immoral. Their public friends of the moment are in it mainly for the political advantage of beating up on President Obama. The incendiary radio personality Rush Limbaugh, for example, is not known to care about fine points of Catholic teaching. His indignation over a young woman wanting contraception coverage in her health insurance was part of his prickly on-air personality and well known opposition to Obama. That’s how he draws an audience, not because he knows or follows the Catholic moral tradition.
Should contraceptive products and medical services for women be paid for in “health” insurance? As a public policy question, a “Yes” answer was given by a panel of professionals in public health and medicine. They decided that contraception should be included among “preventive” services provided without the extra cost of co-payment or deductibles.
When the question is asked in the context of official Catholic teaching, the answer, of course, is “No.” Contraception interferes with the integrity of a human act designed for reproduction: it is contra-conception. Health has nothing to do with it, unless the meaning is stretched to include the long-term regulation of pregnancies.
What is really going on behind the veil of talk about health is an acceptance of futility in preventing almost universal reproductive sexual activity in the population beyond the age of puberty. Almost no one expects chastity to prevail in such a way that public policy could be based on it. If sexual activity among all — married or not — is going to be the norm, then a contraception policy looks like a sensible “preventive” service against “unwanted” pregnancies.
Contraception also enables family planning in a way much easier than the natural method (NFP) required by Catholic teaching. While NFP demands almost heroic virtue in today’s sex-saturated culture, contraceptive devices and chemistry cost only money. They also give women greater control alone over what happens in their lives — while lessening the need for deep communication and mutual respect between men and women.
In summary, the Church expects a certain kind of virtue that almost no other institution does. Some other religious leaders may see and preach against an excessively self-centered “contraceptive mentality,” but not expect that every sexual encounter will be open to conception. When Catholic leadership looked at this question in the 1960s, in the context of marriage and responsible parenthood, we came down on the absolutist side: no contraception any time. Each single physical act was supreme, not the marriage project itself. This has not been accepted in practice by the Catholic people, but it remains the teaching that helps define us.
So the full reality of this issue includes a tangled social, religious, psychological and sexual background that complicates the leadership questions facing both the Obama administration and our bishops. It includes concern for needs of the poor as well as our own moral integrity.
The bishops seem to be asking now for health insurance plans available to any employer as well as individuals that do not pay for the cost of contraception. This could be done, enabling any employer to build a particular part of the Catholic ethos, and a countercultural statement, into the insurance offered for employees. But is this a place where we want to stand or die?
Whether the administration can meet this demand, or should meet it on behalf of the common good of our society, is an open question for most Americans — a question which should be debated with respect and civility, not ugly innuendo, sarcasm and personal attacks. It would be good to see more of a contribution from thoughtful Catholics both in our own Church-related media and the public press.