The Times, the White House & “Catholic colleges”

As faithful readers of this weblog will know, your GetReligionistas are convinced that it is stunningly simplistic for journalists to talk about the “Catholic vote,” as if there was one mass of Catholics who agree on how they should apply centuries of Catholic doctrine to their actions in voting booths.

About a decade ago, an elderly priest here in Washington, D.C., told me that he is convinced that — at the very least — there are four competing camps of “Catholic voters” here in postmodern America. As a reminder, here is the typology as I have shared it in the past:

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for Democrats. Cultural conservatives have no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be one of those all-important “undecided voters” depending on what’s happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* “Sweat the details” Catholics who go to confession. They are active in the full sacramental life of their parishes and almost always back the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice.

As noted, the final camp — the depressing world of confession statistics are the key — represents a very small piece of the American Catholic pie.

Now, on to the current headlines. You see, it helps to keep that “Catholic voters” typology in mind while reading mainstream media coverage of the escalating conflict between the Obama administration and the world of religious education and non-profit ministries. Since clashes with the Catholic hierarchy have received the most ink, it helps to remember that not all “Catholic colleges” are “Catholic colleges” in the same sense of the word. The same statement is true of “Catholic hospitals.”

Thus, one would expect various kinds of Catholic institutions to have different policies when it comes to defending church doctrines on controversial issues — such as birth control.

This brings us to the following headline in The New York Times: “Ruling on Contraception Draws Battle Lines at Catholic Colleges.”

The only appropriate response? Well, DUH. Of course this fight is drawing battles between the White House and Catholic institutions, as well as spotlighting preexisting fractures in the world of Catholic higher education. Simply stated: These schools are not preaching or practicing the same faith. Why shouldn’t they clash when it comes time to react to a government action affecting religious liberty?

Here’s the summary language in this story:

Many Catholic colleges decline to prescribe or cover birth control, citing religious reasons. Now they are under pressure to change. This month the Obama administration, citing the medical case for birth control, made a politically charged decision that the new health care law requires insurance plans at Catholic institutions to cover birth control without co-payments for employees, and that may be extended to students. But Catholic organizations are resisting the rule, saying it would force them to violate their beliefs and finance behavior that betrays Catholic teachings.

“We can’t just lie down and die and let religious freedom go,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Now hold your breath. Here’s the payoff punch:

In an election season that features Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who have stressed their Catholic faith, scientific thinking on the medical benefits of birth control has clashed with deeply held religious and cultural beliefs.

Once again, science on one side vs. blind religion on the other. That’s the magic formula, it seems. Right Bill Keller?

Also, note that this entire matter is simply political, not theological. There are no real doctrinal issues to debate. The folks who see a religious-liberty crisis in all of this — often liberal Catholics, as well as conservative — are only doing so because of a political agenda. You know, like the right-wingers at the liberal National Catholic Reporter (and the editorial board of The Washington Post, while we are at it).

But enough about the predictable political framing in this story. Back to the Catholic colleges in the headline.

Some Catholic colleges are likely to ask for a yearlong delay in implementing the rule on birth control coverage, said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. In the longer run, he predicted in a statement that either Congress or the Supreme Court would invalidate the rule. Belmont Abbey College, which is Catholic, and the interdenominational Colorado Christian University have already sued the Department of Health and Human Services, arguing that the birth control requirement violates the right to freedom of religion.

Birth control is considered a “preventive service” under the new health care law, but Mr. Galligan-Stierle said such services should be limited to preventing disease, not pregnancy.

“We do not happen to think pregnancy is disease,” he said. “We think it’s a gift of love of two people and our creator.”

The most important word comes right at the beginning of that passage — “some.”

In other words, there are Catholic schools that defend Catholic teachings and strive to recruit students, faculty and staff who join in that effort — or at the very least seek to recruit those who will not oppose these teachings. Then again, many Catholic schools openly reject the teachings of their church.

Thus, we read:

At Catholic universities, some students support the right of the schools to uphold religious doctrine. But others, particularly professional and graduate students, have found the restrictions on birth control coverage onerous. …

One recent Georgetown law graduate, who asked not to be identified for reasons of medical privacy, said she had polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition for which her doctor prescribed birth control pills. She is gay and had no other reason to take the pills. Georgetown does not cover birth control for students, so she made sure her doctor noted the diagnosis on her prescription. Even so, coverage was denied several times. She finally gave up and paid out of pocket, more than $100 a month. After a few months she could no longer afford the pills. Within months she developed a large ovarian cyst that had to be removed surgically — along with her ovary.

“If I want children, I’ll need a fertility specialist because I have only one working ovary,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Georgetown, Stacy Kerr, said that problems like this were rare and that doctors at the health service knew how to help students get coverage for contraceptives needed for medical reasons. Asked if Georgetown would begin covering birth control under the new rule, she said, “We will be reviewing and evaluating the new regulations, ever mindful of our Catholic and Jesuit identity and mission.”

I kept waiting to see if this story would recognize the wide diversity that is found Catholic education. I was expecting, frankly, to hear from qualified, experienced Catholic educators who want to defend their faith on this matter — which would mean resisting government actions to force them to financially support actions they believe are sinful. Instead, we get this accurate, yet rather bombastic quote:

Senior Catholic officials said that students at Catholic universities should know what to expect, and that those who disagree with the policies can choose to go elsewhere. “No one would go to a Jewish barbecue and expect pork chops to be served,” Mr. Galligan-Stierle said.

That’s a valid quote and it’s valid for the Times to use it.

My question is simple: Is this one of those urban, sophisticated Times stories in which the editors (if they agree with their newly retired editor) believe that they do not need to cover both sides of an issue? Is it enough now that they quote the valid, powerful anecdotes and arguments on one side and then reduce the other side’s convictions to rumblings about politics and a punchy soundbite?

Just asking.

The key to future coverage is to find out if the government will find ways to honor the convictions of Catholic schools that want to defend Catholic doctrines and will openly and legally state that in all contacts and legal covenants with students, faculty and staff. In other words, can the government find ways to treat these religious private schools — Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, etc. — like the religious institutions that they are.

And the rest of the Catholic schools? The leaders of those schools are free to kneel to the state on this matter. They have ever right to do that, if the Vatican decides to let them do it — while remaining “Catholic colleges.” Then again, there is this.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Nancy Reyes MD

    Their reporting is also bad from a medical standpoint: I am wondering if they are mixing up “Polycystic ovary syndrome” (which includes metabolic syndrome, and is treated with the pill and the anti diabetic drug metformin) and recurrent ovarian cysts (which are treated by a pill that stops ovulation that causes the cysts).

    Catholic women can use the pill to regulate irregular cycles, for heavy bleeding, for endometriosis, for prevention of follicular cysts etc.

    This isn’t about the pill per se: It is a religious war: it is about the government enforcing a public policy that sees sex as recreational, babies as a disease, and contraception/abortion (e.g. the morning after pill) as desirable, whereas Catholics see sex as a gift of God in marriage and children as a blessing.

    (and I should note, not only in the USA: American government money is behind the Philippine government’s proposed “Reproductive health bill” a if wikileaks is to be believed).

    This is merely the first step, of course, and the bishops know this.

    The next step is firing nurses and doctors and pharmacies for not giving out the abortion causing morning after pill or the abortion pill, or catholic hospitals for refusing to do “medical” abortions.

    And the real scandal of this is that birth control pills, that cost a few dollars to make and you can buy here in Asia for under ten dollars a cycle, are being sold to people for 100 dollars a box. But as long as insurance companies don’t complain, then they get away with it… Follow the money?

  • sari

    Birth control is considered a “preventive service” under the new health care law, but Mr. Galligan-Stierle said such services should be limited to preventing disease, not pregnancy.

    “We do not happen to think pregnancy is disease,” he said. “We think it’s a gift of love of two people and our creator.”

    What about instances where pregnancy causes illness, as when it will pose a definite threat to the woman’s life?

    I have yet to see a journalist address the issue of who Catholic institutions employ. For instance, my childhood friends who attended Catholic schools were taught by nuns or male clergy (I apologize for my ignorance on the distinctions between different orders), but now many teachers are Catholic laity and some aren’t Catholic at all. The situation seems to be similar in many Catholic hospitals. Should all employees be subject to church law or just those who are Catholic?

    Btw, the bombastic quote actually summarizes the situation pretty well. Attend a religious institution with the foreknowledge that the rules will be different than those found in mainstream, secular society.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I might add that it would be interesting to see some history in the media about Church state conflicts. There are many historians that argue that the rights and freedoms we enjoy in the West grew up under the umbrella of the Church(es) struggling to protect her freedoms. One need only look at Poland today as a typical example.

  • tmatt

    This is not the place to argue about the Catholic teachings. Take that stuff elsewhere.

    Spiking away.

    Stick to the MANY journalism issues raised by this NYTs story.

  • Matt

    In an election season that features Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who have stressed their Catholic faith, scientific thinking on the medical benefits of birth control has clashed with deeply held religious and cultural beliefs.

    Oh, seriously. Science has nothing to do with this controversy. Everyone knows and agrees on what science has to say about how and why birth control works. The question here is whether it is moral to use it. And Sam Harris notwithstanding, that is not a scientific question.

  • Mollie

    In an election season that features Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who have stressed their Catholic faith, scientific thinking on the medical benefits of birth control has clashed with deeply held religious and cultural beliefs.

    Wowwwwwwwwww. Tell me you wouldn’t use that line if you were going to satirize how the Times treats religious views. And yet it’s not satire!

    It’s not even that I want to fight the idea that birth control can be viewed as having medical benefits. But the idea that taking the pill can solely be thought of as beneficial isn’t borne out by the facts as known by any woman who has read the fine print on birth control pill packets. Treating birth control as an unalloyed good makes it seem like a journalist’s secular sacrament rather than what it is — something that, from a secular standpoint, can treat a variety of conditions and is known to have a variety of risks and downsides.

    I was almost positive, when reading that line, that this must be some kind of op-ed or commentary piece of some kind. But it’s not.

  • Mollie

    Another thought. I found it interesting that this article was framed as if these women have an untenable choice. I can think of many choices that weren’t discussed here (except flippantly), all of which involve infinitely less violation than forcing religious people to forsake their doctrine and conscience. These people could drop out of Catholic schools and go somewhere that better matches their sexual lifestyle. They could pay for their birth control — from condoms at a quarter a pop to birth control pills at $40/month or so. They could decide not to have sex. They could decide to embrace the procreative nature of the conjugal act.

    None of these were presented in the story as viable options. It’s just kind of odd that they weren’t. The framing tells us everything that the source selection doesn’t.

  • Matt

    Regarding the PCOS story, I am not able to chase down documentation myself at this time, but I am pretty sure that the Catholic Church does not object to using birth control pills for legitimate medical purposes. The Georgetown spokeswoman even more or less says so, though only obliquely as the reporter either failed to ask or failed to report having asked the question directly.

    Even if we accept the student’s story (for which we have only her word), it amounts to nothing more than an insurance company being difficult, which happens all the time even with non-hot-button issues.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    The NYT article omitted one significant fact (at least): some of the coverage is for birth control that produces an abortion.

    Good for the WaPo! Liberals ought to be paying attention to this. Catholics are an acceptable group to target, and about the only Christians that care about contraception. That makes this an easy place to to plant the flag, to set the precedent. But if they can do it to us, they can do it to you.

    tmatt – I appreciate your posting the Catholic typology again. I do have one question, which is an observation, really. I wonder if the Sunday Morning American Catholics are really a “swing vote”. The ones I know are pretty reliable Democrat voters. I wonder if another type of SMAC (nice!) is reliably Republican, then a relatively small group actually swings according to the economy and so on. Is their actual research on the voting patterns of this group? My comment is strictly anecdotal.

  • Francis J. Beckwith

    I can’t believe I just read this: “In an election season that features Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who have stressed their Catholic faith, scientific thinking on the medical benefits of birth control has clashed with deeply held religious and cultural beliefs.”

    The question of the proper use of one’s sexual powers is by its very nature not a scientific question, just as the question of whether it is right or wrong to execute a capital criminal is not a question of electric engineering because it may require an electric chair.

    “Scientific thinking on the medical benefits of birth control” can no more clash with “deeply held religious and culture beliefs” than can “scientific thinking on the medical benefits of harvesting the organs of death penalty prisoners” clash with “universal human rights.” The fact that a deliverance of science may have physical benefits for someone tells absolutely nothing about whether it is in fact good. The author commits a category mistake, not unlike saying that a rose smells better than the square root of three.

  • Mollie

    I just had to share these tweets I came across from a reporter:

    4 HHS mandate story, NYT finds lesbian prescribed Pill 4 non-contraceptive purpose, couldn’t get it b/c of Cath. school

    …that’s simply incredible. An almost unimaginably helpful example for the HHS’ viewpoint. My hat is off to that reporter.


  • Julia

    I wonder if the Sunday Morning American Catholics are really a “swing vote”. The ones I know are pretty reliable Democrat voters. I wonder if another type of SMAC (nice!) is reliably Republican,

    Lots of the ones I know are reliably Republican. They are mainly Middle-Westerners of German extraction. There were very different groups of Catholic immigrants. I think the reliable Democrats were later immigrants who were very involved with unions. The German Catholics with whom I’m familiar are mainly descendants of 19th century immigrants who became farmers and small business people.

    I think the Irish Catholics are more likely to be reliable Democrats. I know quite a few of them, too. Catholics aren’t a homogeneous population. They brought different attitudes with them to this country. And now there are many new Hispanics and we don’t know yet how that will go.

  • Julia

    Working in the 1960s medical milieu in a Catholic hospital, I’m familiar with Catholic young women getting prescriptions for medicines (that are also used for birth control) for acne, straightening out irregular periods and other medical problems. People forget that birth control pills are compounds of female hormones that also have other uses. It’s misleading to just call these pills contraceptives, which is only one of the pills’ uses. I have great difficulty believing that the woman in the Times article couldn’t get the medicines she needed for her cystic problems.

    One of my duties was preparing slides for the hospital pathologist. At times there were materials that were the products of conception associated with surgical removal of ectopic pregnancies. I find it hard to imagine that my Catholic hospital in the 1960s was more liberal than the Georgetown portrayed as so heartless in the article.

  • Bain Wellington

    The typology (and what is said in the associated link) is unduly simplistic and, in one important respect, out-of-date by a generation.

    Resort to confession is not a shibboleth, although it is greatly to be encouraged. What is required of the mature faithful (meaning those who have been admitted to Holy Communion) is to approach the Sacrament of the Eucharist in a state of grace (CCL, can.916 – I paraphrase); to receive Holy Communion at least once a year (CCL, can.920 §1); and to confess all grave sins at least once a year (CCL, can.989). The previous obligation to confess at least once a year (Pio-Benedictine Code, can. 906) was not carried over into the 1983 revision.

    The typology presumes that all American Catholics commit grave sin at least once a year and present themselves at Holy Communion without having previously confessed. For all I know, that may be true, but there is no excuse for omitting a crucial step in the argument.

    Nor is there any justification for the implied slur on “Sunday-morning American Catholics” (the slur being that they pay no attention to their faith in daily life).

    Finally, the hop from those who go to church “once or twice” a year and those who go every Sunday is too far. Many surveys include an important band of those who attend Sunday Mass at least once a month. I cite this recent CARA-originated survey (scroll down to “additionally asked questions” and hit the third bullet) as well as periodic NYT/CBS “American Catholic” polls (which screen for Mass attendance more-than-weekly/weekly/monthly/yearly).

  • Dan

    Let us consider some of the “medical benefits” that science has found come with the use of oral contraception:

    1. Women who take the birth control pill for 10 years have nearly double the normal risk of developing cervical cancer (;

    2. Estrogen in oral contraception can cause blood clots (,0,3060297.story); and

    3. Reported side effects of oral contraceptives include headaches, nausea, bloating, breast tenderness and decreased sex drive (,0,4200522.story),

    The links supporting the foregoing assertions are to the LA Times, not LifeSite News.

    Meanwhile methods for regulating births through fertility awareness can be quite effective and have no side effects whatsoever (the are indeed “all natural”). Reporters pride themselves on being intrepid and iconoclastic. When will one come along who is sufficiently intrepid and iconoclastic to report on the success Catholics have had with developing natural (and truly healthy) means of regulating births?

  • sari

    The science quoted by both sides is a smokescreen for the real issue: governmental intrusion into what were once strictly religious matters. tmatt correctly noted that Catholic educational institutions have had variable responses to healthcare legislation, though Georgetown’s answer was a non-answer rather than a denial of church policy.

    Dan, the science on BCP can go either way, depending on the desired point to be made. Yes, the risks of BCPs are exactly as you describe. Further, there’s a subset of women who simply cannot tolerate any kind of hormonal tweaking–become so depressed as to become non-functional. But, the rhythm method is one of the least effective forms of BC, and only partly because it requires tremendous self-control.

    On the other side, pregnancy has its own risks and these are often, though not always, greater than that of taking the pill. Unspaced pregnancies also carry risks to the developing fetus, which may be less nourished in utero than its predecessor. Lastly, the issue of the costs of raising and educating more as opposed to fewer children should also be addressed, in addition to the increase in disabilities associated with advanced maternal age.

    I would like to see journalists ask those religious bodies which prohibit use of contraceptives what help they will provide parents to deal with the challenges of raising a large (or any) family in today’s world, one where education is paramount. Given two evils, termination of a viable fetus and prevention of conception, which sin is greater? What kind of support is provided to the unmarried to help prevent sexual activity? In the case of highly selective universities like Georgetown, should non-Catholic students, heavily recruited by virtue of their SATs, GREs, GPAs, and volunteer activities, be informed up-front that they will need to abide by a Catholic code of conduct, something that may not be obvious when they apply? Likewise non-Catholic staff, particularly professors who bring prestige to the university.

  • Francis J. Beckwith

    Sari, the risk of death as a consequence of existing is 100%. No one gets out of this place alive.

  • Matt

    Sari, I assume it was inadvertent on your part, but your mention of the “rhythm method” is outdated, and it’s hard to avoid suspecting that the term’s continued appearance in the media is part of a campaign to smear natural birth control methods as ineffective (again, I assume you are an unwitting victim of this).

    In fact, fertility awareness methods are far more sophisticated than the simple “rhythm” that was used fifty years ago, and are highly effective.

  • Dan

    Sari, the “rhythm method” is an antiquated term that refers to antiquated methods of naturally regulating births. In the last 30 years or so scientists (mostly Catholic) have made tremendous strides in understanding the fertility cycle and developing techniques for regulating births based on that understanding. The studies concerning the efficacy of fertility awareness as a means of regulating birth conflict, as you might expect, according to who is doing the study (they also are to some degree inherently subjective because, as is true for most forms of contraception (including the pill and condoms), success rates for natural family planning methods depend in part on the level of motivation of the participants.) This is not the place to debate those studies; however, when the matter is viewed in a fully informed and fair manner, it simply cannot be said that fertility awareness is anywhere near the least effective means of regulating births. As a “for example,” the sypmtothermal method has been found by one study to be as effective as the pill:

    There are many, many other studies finding that natural family planning can have high effective rates. My point here is not to debate the studies but to point out that the press appears to be entirely ignorant about, or willfully ignoring, the strides that science has made in developing techniques for regulating births naturally.

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  • John Pack Lambert

    I find it interesting that the article highlighted concerns of students at Georgetown and Fordham, but failed to contact students at Belmont Abbey or any other place that the government has actually taken to court. …

  • sari

    My apologies if I offended anyone by using the wrong terminology. That was certainly not my intent. My only point was that science has no definitive answer on this one. What Obama presents as hard science falls more into the murkier realm of social science.

    While I am sympathetic to the issues presented here and certainly don’t want to be forced to violate my religious beliefs, I wonder how the R.C.C. and other churches will deal with the inevitable financial fallout. To refuse service on the basis on one’s ethnicity can result in loss of federal dollars and accreditation. Should the same thing happen when one religion refuses to accommodate members of another? Should the federal government continue to fund religious institutions which discriminate? These are questions that should be asked, because by insisting that all concerned, irregardless of background, be subject to the church’s dictates suggests discrimination on the public’s nickel. That’s the discussion which should be happening in a diverse society: at what point do societal issues take precedence over religious issues and vice versa? This about more than church policy and its position on birth control.

  • Hector

    Re: But, the rhythm method is one of the least effective forms of BC, and only partly because it requires tremendous self-control.

    ‘Rhythm method’ is an obsolete term, since there are now much more sophisticated methods of tracking one’s fertility. Fertility awareness methods of birth control, when used correctly by women with regular cycles, are highly effective. They’re somewhat less effective than the Pill, but substantially more effective than condoms (which aren’t really very effective at all). I put in that disclaimer because women with irregular cycles tend to drop out of the studies. But in general, the symptothermal method of birth control has been found to be highly effective. In the early 1990s, according to World Health Organization statistics, Fertility Awareness methods were the most common form of birth control in Poland (which had at the time, and still has, a birth rate well below replacement).

    Personally, I’m Anglican and I don’t object to oral contraceptives at all, but I think it’s important that people take a fair-minded and accurate assessment of natural family planning, and give it its due as a valid and effective form of birth control. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa a couple years ago, and occasionally did presentations on family planning, and when I did so I made it a point to talk a bit about fertility awareness methods and make it clear that they actually do work quite well, whe used properly.