When then-candidate Rick Santorum declared in February that John F. Kennedy’s 1960 comments on the role of people of faith in the public square made him want to “throw up,” he merely presaged a showdown to come. After this week’s announcement of a lawsuit brought by Catholic groups upset with the Obama administration, HUP Publicity Assistant Bridget Martin turned to a few books for context, and offers the post below.
This week, 43 Catholic organizations including schools and hospitals filed lawsuits against the Obama administration in response to the federal mandate that birth control coverage be included in health care plans. Though the Obama administration proposed a compromise by which the responsibility for payment could be shifted from employers to the insurance companies, those bringing suit characterize the mandate as an assault on religious liberty. The lawsuits have set off a maelstrom of responses, unveiling the political, ethical, and social complexities embedded in the issue.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece entitled “Why the Bishops Are Suing the U.S. Government,” Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon defends American bishops and their initiative to preserve the separation of Church and State. Glendon, whose HUP books include Abortion and Divorce in Western Law, argues that the health insurance mandate violates the Catholic Church’s constitutional liberty, ultimately demoting religion to a second-class right. She sees the debate not as an argument about contraception, but as a principle for preserving religious liberty, asserting, “The main goal of the mandate is not, as HHS claimed, to protect women’s health. It is rather a move to conscript religious organizations into a political agenda, forcing them to facilitate and fund services that violate their beliefs, within their own institutions.”
But what exactly did the founders intend when they included the separation of church and state clause in the US Constitution? In Religious Freedom and the Constitution, Christopher L. Eisgruber and Lawrence G. Sager caution us against imagining an impenetrable wall between church and state when we consider the ideal. Rather, they argue that while religious institutions and practitioners have the right to be free from governmental discrimination on account of religious beliefs, those religious beliefs do not on their own exempt institutions and practitioners from generally applicable laws. This interpretation sheds a different light on the relationship between church and state, especially as US bishops turn to the court in fear of being marginalized by the federal government.
Government influence is not the only social issue driving the contraception controversy. A day after Glendon’s piece was published, Maureen Dowd’s op-ed in the New York Times took an opposing stance. Dowd frankly rejects the position adopted by Glendon and others: “The church insists it’s an argument about religious freedom, not birth control. But, really it’s about birth control, and women’s lower caste in the church.”
Dowd’s argument is a window into the gender and power implications of this debate. As an institution dependent on male hierarchy, is the Church’s disapproval of contraception a tool to subordinate women? The struggles of women within the male power structure of the Church are chronicled in Jo Ann Kay McNamara’s Sisters in Arms, which traces the history of Catholic nuns in the Western world. McNamara shows that the earliest female converts were attracted to the Church by the proclamation of equality in the Kingdom of Heaven, a notion vastly different from the patriarchal societies of the Early Church. Yet since the establishment of female ministries, women have struggled to be recognized as equals in the church.
Garry Wills emphasized this subordination in an April post on the New York Review blog. Wills explains how the Vatican recently “stripped the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, representing most American nuns, of its powers of self-government, maintaining that its members have made statements that ‘disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.’” Outraged by this blatant reduction of power for women in the Church, Wills calls attention to the nuns’ unwavering commitment to the social Gospel, aiding those suffering regardless of political implications involved, as in their response to the AIDS crisis, their facilitation of the spiritual needs of gay people, and their activism in the civil rights movement.
Debates over the politics of religious freedom and gender inequality seem certain to reach a fever pitch in this election year. The Catholic Church is planning a national campaign for their cause, “Fortnight for Freedom,” to run from June 21st through the symbolically chosen July 4th. The initiative, intended to encourage prayer, education, and public action about religious freedom, was created in direct response to the perceived threat posed by the Obama administration. With the Church seemingly demonstrating the primacy of a respect for life in its political motivations, it will be interesting to watch the extent to which American Catholics embrace Mitt Romney, even in light of his Mormonism, which some may still find unsettling.