Why the Catholic Contraception Controversy Is a Phony Battle

The Catholic Church is asking the Obama administration to do something it cannot do itself: limit birth control use.

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Public health and women's autonomy collided with religion last week. Elders in the Catholic Church were incensed as the regulations implementing the federal healthcare law would have required institutions affiliated with the Church (but not the Church itself) to provide health plans covering contraception. The rules (part of the normal regulation-writing process that comes after a sweeping law is enacted) would not have forced the Church or its clergymen to hand out birth control; they only would have required Catholic-affiliated schools, hospitals, and universities to play by the rules everyone else has to follow, and provide for full healthcare coverage for women.

The Obama administration, under fire as the health issue turned into a political issue, offered a compromise: health insurance companies would have to provide the free birth control to the female employees (some of whom are not even Catholic), but the religious-affiliated institutions would not have to pay for it.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should Catholic and Other Religious Institutions Have to Cover Birth Control?]

It was a dodge of sorts, to be sure, but it gave the bishops the cover they needed to maintain the Catholic Church standard opposing contraception. Still, it was a generous compromise. And now the bishops are suggesting it is not enough, citing "serious moral concerns" about the compromise, particularly as it might apply to entities that self-insure.

That, on its own, is a bit of a stretch. The Church, after all, has given marriage annulments to politically-connected people who had not only been married for years, but have had children. If that's not an inartful dodge around the Church rule forbidding divorce, nothing is. And while it's probably not helpful to resurrect the painful episode of the decades of child sexual abuse by priests and the failure of the Church to stop them, it's also true that the institution of the Church is still rebuilding its "moral" brand.

Picking a fight with the Obama administration does nothing to advance that goal. Nor does it improve the Church's power over its own flock—98 percent of whom have used birth control. Government should indeed protect religious freedom, which is why no one's asking priests to marry same-sex couples or forcing Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. But what the Church is dangerously close to doing is an equally invasive reverse: asking the government to try to enforce a rule the Church has been wildly unsuccessful in imposing on its own members.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

There's one clear reason why both the Church and the GOP presidential candidates have been raising the tired old accusations of the a war on Catholicism (an allegation that is extremely insulting to Catholics, to whom faith in God is sincere and unshakeable—certainly not threatened by a coworker getting free birth control pills). It's an election year, so it's prime time for making hyperbolic and incendiary accusations that have little basis in fact. Social issues have been largely absent from the campaign so far, and for a reason: the economy has been so bad that it was enough of an issue for GOP candidates to run on. But now that the unemployment rate is creeping slowly down and the stock market is stabilizing, the economy may retreat somewhat as an issue. And that leads candidates to insert wedge issues like the contraception debate.

Remarkably, opponents of the Obama administration rule, along with self-described liberal pundits, are convinced that the "Catholic vote" will rise up against Obama in the fall. That analysis assumes that all Catholics vote according to their Church's dictates, which is absurd, especially in this case. If nearly all Catholics use birth control, why on earth would they vote against a president who tried to make access to birth control easier? Those who are that upset about contraception weren't planning to vote for this president, anyway.

There will be more social issues raised during this election year, especially after the GOP nomination is sealed. But the contraception debate is a phony one.

  • Leslie Marshall: The Problems With the Catholic Church and Birth Control
  • See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.
  • See a slide show of 10 things that are (and aren’t) in the healthcare bill.