Painted Into a Corner, Catholic Bishops May Have Found a Way to Comply with the HHS Contraception Mandate

Earlier in November, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) held its annual fall meeting, after which it released a Special Message that has raised some a few eyebrows. Why? Well, it just might hold the key to letting the bishops make a graceful exit from the issue of reproductive health-care coverage.

The message focuses specifically on the HHS Mandate that would require all employers — even Catholic ones, such as hospitals and universities — to provide health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization, and other examples of reproductive care the Church calls sinful. It’s not even surprising anymore to hear the bishops double down on what awesome work Catholic charities do, and how unfair it all is.

But some commenters have picked up on a slight change in tone, so subtle it’s invisible unless you’re very, very good at picking out the nuances of the Church hierarchy’s political double-speak:

Even as each bishop struggles to address the mandate, together we are striving to develop alternate avenues of response to this difficult situation. We seek to answer the Gospel call to serve our neighbours, meet our obligation to provide our people with just health insurance, protect our religious freedom, and not be coerced to violate our consciences. We remain grateful for the unity we share in this endeavor with Americans of all other faiths, and even with those of no faith at all.

The bishops’ statement has made a point of mentioning how every bishop is acting independently to address the problem of health insurance coverage. That gives individual bishops the potential leeway to bow out of the battle without seeming to undermine the Church’s larger point. But even more significantly, it acknowledges the search for “alternate avenues of response” that will allow Catholic ministries to continue “answer[ing] the Gospel call” in spite of contraceptive coverage.

We ought not underestimate the importance of that shift. Prior to this statement, the USCCB has approached the situation by throwing a massive tantrum over the HHS mandate. They filed lawsuits; they threatened to shut down services. Some bishops even professed their willingness to go to jail rather than comply. Government, media, and public opinion reacted to these antics with the society-wide equivalent of a bemused shrug.

At that point, many of the bishops seem to have realized that they’re not really keen on (or in some cases even capable of) shutting down services over birth control, and they’re looking for another way — one that lets them save face when they don’t ultimately follow through on those wacky, martyr-style solutions they came up with in the throes of their persecution complex.

Or, as David Gibson of the National Catholic Reporter puts it:

After repeatedly drawing that line in the sand, a growing number of bishops have begun to push back, arguing that such hard-line rhetoric has put them in an untenable position. These bishops do not want to close Catholic institutions over a birth control policy — and they say they actually can’t do so in most cases. In addition, they argue that there is no reason to try — the exemptions and accommodations in the mandate are sufficient, some say, and the church’s teaching that access to good, affordable health care is a basic right should outweigh any remaining reservations.

Sure, that’s what we’ve been trying to tell them all along. But now that they’ve figured it out on their own, they still have to come up with a way to handle the situation that keeps the myth of the Church’s inerrancy intact. Changing a Catholic teaching really only works if you can preface every brand-new idea with the phrase “As the Church has always taught…”

About Sara Lin Wilde

Sara Lin Wilde is a recovering Catholic (and cat-holic, for that matter - all typographical errors are the responsibility of her feline friends). She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where she is working on writing a novel that she really, really hopes can actually get published.

  • Lonestar

    The emphasis on individual Bishops seems to also indicate that there are some who will want to follow through with a martyr-response of some sort.

  • Lonestar

    According to Catholic morality theology based on the concept of “natural law” removing procreation from sex is sinful. It’s hard to come up with an analogy because it tends to be an area of morality that is unique. Maybe you could liken it to bulimia: wanting to eat food, but not wanting the calories that come with it–it would be considered sinful to throw up all your food. (The purpose of eating is to obtain nourishment.) However, the analogy breaks down when you consider there doesn’t seem to be any problem with companies who have created foods which have zero calories.

    This is why after the birth control pill came out, there was this big question within the Church about whether or not it would be allowable: the pill isn’t a barrier, so it could be considered merely hormone therapy. Not wanting to have a period, etc. is no problem within Catholic morality.

    As long as natural law is the logical basis for sexual morality, it’s unlikely to change significantly. There really needs to be a new philosophical understanding of morality in regards to sex within the Church.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    How do Catholics handle naturally occurring homosexual relationships among animals?

    Or goldenflower tea? Or ergot of rye? Or tansy oil? Or various other “natural” contraceptives/abortifacients.

    This whole natural law thing doesn’t seem to be very consistent.

  • Lonestar

    I don’t think there’s any concept of sin for animals. Nor is there any teaching that “all dogs go to heaven.” I think there was one or two early Church Fathers who speculated on animals having souls, but it’s a theology that has never been developed (for obvious reasons I think).

    Despite the name, natural law refers to reason and purpose, rather than things found in nature. It doesn’t really matter that the birth control pill is synthetic as opposed to a natural substance. It’s derived from Aristotelean philosophy that defines morality according to purpose.

    So first you ask: what is the purpose of sex? By reason, the obvious primary purpose of sex is procreation. Therefore procreation makes sex moral. (I’m being extremely brief and clumsy here, I’m sure there’s probably more to it–but that’s the basic idea).

    Michael Sandel gives an example of Aristotelean morality in this Ted talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_sandel_the_lost_art_of_democratic_debate.html

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    So the bonding and emotional aspects of sex are unimportant? The fact that we crave sex even while infertile (during infertile periods, infertile people, and post-fertile people all* want sex) is meaningless? The fact that the endorphin rush can cure incipient migraines and promote a general sense of well-being is just a fact to be tossed in the trash?

    Why on Earth would you say the the primary purpose of sex is procreation? It’s a purpose, sure, but the primary one? I don’t think so. Else people wouldn’t want to do it even at times they really, really didn’t want to procreate or simply couldn’t procreate. Anal and oral sex also wouldn’t be quite so popular if the primary purpose of sex was procreation. Same for masturbation. Also that whole homosexuality thing- completely natural, and yet very non-procreative-sex-craving.

    A better question, of course, is what makes non-procreative sex immoral? If it’s not hurting anyone, why not do it if you and your partner(s) are willing?

    *If they aren’t asexual, of course. And fertile asexual people don’t crave sex. So there is also that.

  • Lonestar

    Current state of Catholic thinking is that yes, the bonding/love aspect is important as well. The position taken is that both are required aspects of sex (i.e. artificial insemination is also immoral).

    “A better question, of course, is what makes non-procreative sex immoral?”

    Also there are other questions such as: why is it moral for a couple to have sex when the woman is already pregnant? The Catholic answer seems to be that the nature of the act is still pro-creative by design. (This leads us back to the question about the pill though…)

    Or how about why are both required instead of just one being required?

    Also, why is not one of the purposes of sex pleasure? That would seem to be a very natural and reasonable conclusion.

  • Lonestar

    Then there is that tricky allowance for NFP (natural family planning) which was introduced in the 1960’s. So in fact the intent can be to not have kids (for important reasons), but you just can’t use “artificial” tools.

    That seems inconsistent. But on the other hand, if they didn’t allow you to just not have sex at certain times, it would seem a bit excessive–you can’t really be sinning for NOT having sex, right?

  • Lonestar

    Yes. I’m all for them making their opinions heard, but the idea that you’d shut down your hospital because you might have to pay a company for health insurance that provides contraception (are there any that exclude contraception?) is just ridiculous. You’re not directly purchasing contraception for people–you’re providing a service in which the people make their own choice about contraception. It’s like saying you won’t be giving any paychecks unless you can be sure people won’t be buying contraceptions with it. Or telling people not to shop at [INSERT ALMOST ANY STORE] because they also sell contraception, and that would be therefore supporting it.

    It is just silly. They shouldn’t feel that it’s violating their conscience because the economy somehow indirectly allows for contraception, and they are part of the economy.


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