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Religious Authority is Not Enough When Rights Are in Conflict

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"Women will have access to preventive care that includes contraceptive services, no matter where they work."   That is the federal mandate which the U.S. Catholic bishops claim is an infringement on the Church's religious liberty.   They are meeting this week to decide how best to further their argument.

How the bishops wage their fight in a pluralistic, democratic society is as important as the outcome itself. The bishops can reduce their moral credibility and authority even further than their treatment of women and the pedophilia scandal already has, or begin to rebuild their moral voice. It depends on the bishops themselves.   So far they have not done well.  

Hyperbole, demonizing the opposition, discrediting the beliefs of others, aligning with radical elements on the political right, disinformation, these are the tools of ideology, not theology, and the bishops have hurt their own cause by using them.

After the announcement of the pre-amended policy in January, the bishops, as planned, required the reading of a letter at Catholic parishes.   The contents echoed comments of then Archbishop Timothy Dolan. "The law, it said, "strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty for all citizens of faiths ... The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that almost all employers, including Catholic employers, will be forced to offer their employees   health coverage that includes sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraception ... And almost all individuals will be forced to buy that coverage as part of their policies."    

This is disingenuous at best. Nothing in the law requires Catholics or anyone else to use contraception or contraceptive devices.   Drugs such as RU486 that cause a woman to abort a pregnancy are not included in the law or regulations.   Plan B is included but there is no scientific agreement that Plan B causes abortions. The letter not only misconstrued the law, it conflated contraception and abortion, a tendency reflected in much of Catholic teaching on contraception.

Within the framework of legal rights, which is how the bishops framed their argument, they will have to contend with the equal and opposing rights of others, which they have not as yet done. The wider society finds that access to contraception is a health right that flows from a woman's right to substantial control over her own body. For many, Catholics included, use of contraception to avoid pregnancy is a responsible action given conditions of poverty, mental health, abuse, or wider concerns for the common good. The bishops hold contraception to be inherently evil.

There is a valid conflict of claims here; opposing rights will have to be worked out publicly and with respect to the rights of all. Rights claimed by Church authority do not trump the rights of others.   Ultimatums and threats are inappropriate. Refusing to meet as equals in public debate with those affected by the bishops demands will not work. Demonizing others for their beliefs will not work.   In short, how the institutional Church functions internally will not get them very far in the wider society. While arguing that their religious freedom not be infringed upon, they will have to address the fact that their claim infringes on religious and other freedoms of those with whom they disagree.  

As a conflict of rights, it is not a conflict of good people against bad, moral people against evil, salvation against damnation.   Insofar as the bishops refuse to take seriously the rights of others, they will further forfeit their voice in our society.  Neither the Church nor the wider society can afford the loss.

Angie O'Gorman's essays and articles have appeared in America Magazine, Commonweal, and National Catholic Reporter. She has worked on human rights issues in Honduras, Guatemala,the West Bank and the United States. She is the author of The Book of (more...)
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